For Florida Democrats, the full impact of Florida’s 2022 mid-term elections won’t be felt until January, when Republican Wilton Simpson takes the oath of office to replace Democrat Nikki Fried as Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner, ending a string of Democrat statewide officeholders that date back to before the Civil War.
January’s official ousting of Fried will mark the lowest point of political power in the history of Florida’s Democratic Party especially when combined with new GOP supermajorities in both legislative chambers. And that means money is going to be hard to come by.
On the bright side, money isn’t everything, and that also means that Florida Democrats have nowhere to go but up. Even so, going up isn’t easy, especially on a budget. National organizations, still giddy from the stunning performance of Democrats seemingly everywhere except Florida, are only just now starting to look back at their brothers and sisters left behind in the Sunshine State and ask, what went wrong?
Some voices, including FDP Chairman Manny Diaz, Democrat National Committee member Thomas Kennedy, and Annette Taddeo, a former FDP chairwoman who came up short in a congressional bid this cycle, have already weighed in with their thoughts, much of it around the problem of money.
Diaz is pointing fingers at national Democrats for abandoning Florida and not spending more money here. He points to the eye-popping spending disparity by national Democrats in Florida. In 2018, national Democratic groups spent roughly $59 million in Florida. This year? Diaz says it was just $1.35 million.
But many people inside and outside of Democrat politics say that the FDP’s over-reliance on money to mask serious problems has only just started to manifest itself explains Leon County Republican Party Chairman Evan Power, who sees the Democrats failures being much larger than just a financial problem.
“The Florida Democrats’ weaknesses have been covered in recent years with the sugar-high of national money,” Power says. “Now, without it they are on the verge of extinction. They need to find themselves, and quickly, or it may be decades before they are relevant.”
Others, like the National Democrat committeeman Kennedy, acknowledge that money isn’t the only problem. And he is pointing a finger squarely back at Diaz, saying the party’s failures weren’t just financial. Kennedy says the Democrat Party needs not just “new leadership,” but “the right leadership.” His litany of criticisms included nasty shots at Florida’s consultant class, accusing them of using the FDP as “their own personal ATM,” while also lamenting the FDP’s lack of a long-term strategy.
Money isn’t everything
Meanwhile, front-line Democrats, like Taddeo, zeroed in on other non-financial problems, though ththe issues won’t necessarily be easy to fix.
“We know what needs to be done, because we did it in ‘08 and ‘12 with Obama,” she told The Hill in an interview last week. “It takes grunt work. And the grunt work is registering voters. The grunt work is being present in minority communities all the time, not just during an election. The grunt work is building infrastructure, the party from the ground up.”
Former State Senator Jeremy Ring, who ran for Chief Financial Officer in 2018 and fell short in a close race that cycle, echoed that sentiment, saying the problems faced by the modern-day Florida Democratic Party are driven in part by the fact that the voter base has shifted dramatically, and he says the Democrats haven’t done anything about it.
“Fundraising is not the skillset required right now,” Ring says. “Democrats have to build a base. We have to make inroads, grow our grassroots. And that means we have to recruit people to become Democrats, whether they move here or we win them over based on what we stand for. We have to stop speaking to the people in the same fishbowl we’re in, and attract people from outside.”
Expanding the base, meeting people where they are, and stopping the over-reliance on national money to serve as a band-aid for voter outreach problems is a recurring theme among most Democrats The Capitolist spoke with.
Steve Schale, a Democrat government affairs advocate who worked at the FDP from 2005 to 2009 and helped Barack Obama win Florida twice, noted that in the darker days in Florida Democratic politics before Barack Obama’s rise, money wasn’t in abundance then, either. And it can’t be the main starting point for a rebuild now. He says the victories in the Obama years were borne out of a Democratic Party infrastructure that started from a similarly dire financial situation after Republicans won successive elections to control the governor’s mansion and both legislative chambers.
“It was done by focusing on basic building blocks: registering voters, recruiting candidates who had currency in their communities, and running campaigns that met the voters where they are,” Schale says. “I think far too many in my party think that something systemic happened after Obama won twice, and that demographics were somehow destiny.”
Lack of Accountability?
One of the gradual changes that could have played a role in the 2022 cycle for Florida Democrats is the shifting role of the Florida Democratic Party. One insider, who declined to go on the record, wondered what Florida Democrats are even debating over, claiming that “the FDP is a dry, shriveled husk. The [leadership] caucuses raise most of the money now,” the operative said. “The FDP is a bank account, a voter file, and a Twitter account.”
There’s truth behind the obvious irritation. Since the end of the Obama era, when investments in Florida Democrats were made through OFA – “Obama for America” and later “Organizing for Action,” Shale emailed that “there has been an intentional effort to move traditional party functions to various C4 groups,” a decision Shale says he’s never supported, “and that failure to invest in real party infrastructure came home to roost last Tuesday, when not only did Democratic candidates not have the money to compete, there was basically no ground game to turn out the vote.”
The New FDP Mission?
Restoring accountability, building everything anew from the ground up, expanding the party base, recruiting high-quality local candidates, and doing so with an extremely limited budget is not going to be a job for someone timid, though.
“FDP’s leadership has got to be someone who is willing to get attacked, capable of withstanding the pressures and criticisms that are bound to come any time changes are made,” Ring says. “It’s got to be someone who is okay with doing the job for maybe two years, who is willing to break everything so that it can be rebuilt. Finger-pointing won’t help.”
And the price of failure?
“There are over twenty million Floridians out there. We need to focus on things that matter to the majority of them, and that means we need to find ways to go outside our base,” Ring says. “If we don’t get this right, we’re gonna become Mississippi or Alabama. It’s going to take the kind of person who is going to make all of the current Democratic leadership uncomfortable and unhappy.”