One might expect Democrats to be celebrating nationwide.
The election went smoothly. Donald Trump was defeated. Joe Biden scored the highest percentage of the popular vote of any candidate challenging an incumbent since Franklin D. Roosevelt shellacked President Herbert Hoover in 1932.
Yet beyond their sound victory at the presidential level, the party fell short of its down-ballot expectations. They lost seats in the House of Representatives, failed to win a clear majority in the Senate, and couldn’t flip a single state legislature.
The Democratic Party’s failures in the Sunshine State may be the most pronounced and costly of them all as the nation’s largest swing state keeps turning redder.
Trump beat Biden by a three-point margin. The state’s U.S. House delegation lost two Democrats and is now 16-11 in favor of the GOP. Republicans gained a seat and expanded their majority to 24-16 in the Senate, which Democrats thought they could tie or even flip. In the Florida House, the GOP won seven new seats and Democrats lost four, giving the Republican Party a commanding 78-42 majority.
Democrats are holding their own state party accountable for the losses.
“[We] suffered some hard losses last night,” said Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, on Twitter the morning of Nov. 4. “Our party needs to take a long hard look at what went wrong in the election, and how we move forward.”
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, one of the most prominent progressives in the Legislature, won re-election in the 47th district but saw many of her colleagues suffer stinging defeats. She credits her grassroots, issues-driven campaign for her victory and says the party needs to take a similar approach statewide.
“For far too long, we’ve been very squishy,” said Eskamani. “We’ve been nervous to take positions on important issues. As a result, voters don’t feel inspired to come out and vote.”
Eskamani is one of many who has called for state chair Terrie Rizzo and other party leaders to resign. Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, a moderate member of the Democratic caucus, said the party is “in desperate need of new leadership.” Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, called for Rizzo to be “held accountable” for the losses.
While storm clouds are brewing at the national level between centrist and left-wing Democrats, the conflict in Florida is less ideological. Moderates and progressives agree the party is responsible for weak infrastructure, insufficient community outreach, and field operations that cannot compete with the GOP. There is a general consensus that leadership did not do enough to help candidates or organizers.
“Field organizers and [regional organizing directors] that tried to flag roadblocks to a Biden victory in Florida were summarily ignored for the most part,” said Drake Thomsen, who worked as a field organizer for the Florida Coordinated Campaign (FLCC). “In the future, I’d like to see a campaign that listens to the people on the ground and takes them seriously.”
Thomsen also noted in an interview that the campaign’s adjustments to the COVID-19 pandemic were ineffective at reaching every voter, especially Black and Hispanic voters. In Central Florida, the Spanish-language auto-dialer was only available for a few days a week, and no such resource existed at all for reaching Haitian Creole-speaking voters.
Going into 2022, Thomsen says the party needs to plan to have a field presence that can engage with more people while also keeping communities and field staff safe.
Yet even without the pandemic, Florida Democrats have faced criticism for not engaging their Black and Hispanic constituents enough or only reaching out to those communities on the eve of elections.
“You can’t continue to come to the Black community in the late hours asking for them to take to our churches,” said Shevrin Jones. “Then you drop them like a bad habit after the election.”
Community engagement has been a known problem for Florida Democrats who often rely on consultants from out of state who do not understand the local landscape and can adversely affect outreach operations.
“I think there is a deep disconnection between what the consultants are telling Democrats to do and what we see on the ground every single day,” Eskamani said.
Featured image: The Old Florida Capitol in Tallahassee. Unmodified photo by Daniel Vorndran used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/2HZslpM)
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