EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth in a five-part series called “How Florida got so conservative.”
It was less than a day after the 2012 presidential election and Florida Republicans were already suffering from a particularly painful post-election hangover.
The state GOP had outspent the Florida Democratic Party by a 3-to-1 margin, while Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had visited the state nearly 40 times — far more than then-President Barack Obama.
Yet Obama still came out on top, eking out a narrow 1-point victory that earned him Florida’s 29 electoral votes and helped propel him to a second term in the White House. The details of that win were even more alarming for Republicans.
Florida’s politically influential Cuban community, which had favored Republicans for decades, split its vote almost evenly between Romney and Obama, according to exit polling at the time. The GOP had even gone as far as to hold its 2012 national convention in Tampa in an effort to show its commitment to the state.
For Democrats, it was a momentous occasion; a show of how discipline, data and long-term organizing efforts could win over even the toughest and most expensive of battleground states.
“The feeling was that Democrats had picked the Republican lock on Florida,” recalled Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic pollster who helped Obama win the state in 2008 and 2012. “Almost like a video game cheat code.”
Reversal of fortune
Jason Radlinger stands in support of Democratic candidate for Florida governor Charlie Crist during a Get Out the Vote Rally on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Wilton Manors, Fla. (AP Photo/Michael Laughlin)
Fast forward a decade and that Democratic high has largely faded. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Florida since Obama’s reelection victory, Republicans have consolidated their control of the legislature and every statewide elected office and the state Democratic Party is seeking to rebound from the verge of political irrelevancy.
It’s not all terrible news for the party: This month, Democrats scored a surprise upset in the Jacksonville, Fla., mayoral race, flipping the office and beating a Republican who carried Gov. Ron DeSantis’s endorsement in the process.
Nikki Fried, the current chair of the Florida Democratic Party, was quick to celebrate the win, declaring the following morning on Twitter that the Florida Democrats “are back.”
But while the Jacksonville victory was significant and put new wind in the state party’s sails after a string of dispiriting losses, it’s still unclear if it is a harbinger of what’s to come.
In interviews with The Hill, a dozen Democratic operatives, strategists and elected officials cited the need to ramp up voter registration efforts, local organizing and turnout operations and candidate recruitment, conceding that the party had repeatedly failed to follow through on those efforts in recent years.
“The Democrats went to celebrate Obama’s reelection and never came back to Florida,” Amandi said in the weeks before the Jacksonville win.
Now Democrats are wondering if Florida’s recent swing toward conservatism is permanent, or simply an anomaly.
“What we are selling in the State of Florida, Floridians are not buying,” Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) said.
“There are two options for Democrats in Florida: Do our job right and reenergize the Democratic Party or do nothing and allow Republicans being in charge to become the new normal,” he added.
There’s broad consensus among Democrats in the state about what needs to be done. But there’s also broad agreement that the party’s fortunes aren’t likely to change overnight. Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) member from Florida, said that his party should take a page out of the GOP’s playbook.
“It’s going to require long-term thinking,” Kennedy said. “Look what Republicans did with abortion, for example. They played the long game, they confirmed judges, they flipped state legislatures, engaged in some kind of judicial activism.”
“It was a multigenerational, multi-decade campaign and we have to start thinking like that.”
More stories on Florida’s conservative shift:
- Florida becomes conservative model for other GOP states
- How DeSantis benefited from Florida’s changing politics
- How the pandemic turned Florida red
- Florida’s shift to conservative bastion
‘We really need to start building a bench’
Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried speaks during a news conference outside the Pat Franks Court Building Monday, Aug. 22, 2022 in Tampa. Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Kennedy said that Democrats’ efforts to regain a foothold in Florida would have to start at the local level. Winning those down-ballot races — for offices like city councils, county commissions and the state legislature — is necessary to build a bench of candidates who could eventually run for higher office.
“We really need to start building a bench,” Kennedy said. “When you look at Republicans, they did that for a long time. [Sen.] Marco Rubio was once just a young punk in the West Miami City Commission.”
Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), whose South Florida congressional district encompasses former President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach estate, said that part of her party’s challenges are financial; many major donors and national organizations have pulled back in Florida in recent years, while the state Democratic Party and its candidates have struggled to keep pace with Republicans in fundraising.
The party raised just under $681,000 in the first quarter of 2023 while the state GOP pulled in more than $8.4 million, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections.
“It’s not an overnight thing but I do think obviously the party needs to be resourced,” Frankel said.
In one of its latest efforts to right the ship, Florida Democrats elected former state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried as their new chair in February, replacing former Chair Manny Diaz, who resigned under pressure in January.
Diaz’s resignation marked the latest setback for a party that has been consumed for years by dysfunction, infighting, financial woes and lackluster electoral performances.
In an interview with The Hill earlier this month, Fried said there wasn’t the same commitment to the state party in previous election cycles that she’s seeing now.
“I think that our party chair was not as engaged to be successful and so when you don’t have a partnership, outside dollars, outside support walks away,” she said.
A new beginning
Several Democrats say they have seen potential signs of improvement reaching Florida voters under Fried’s leadership. (Getty Images)
Now, Fried has had to put the past behind her.
“Right now, it’s a rebuild,” she said. “It’s not even fixing the party. It is starting from scratch. It is going back to the basics. It’s making sure that we are enlisting and engaging all aspects of the state. It’s making sure that we’re pulling in people that are going to work around the clock.
She says she spends her days talking to donors, elected officials, grassroots organizers, people inside the state and across the country “selling the story that the Democratic Party of Florida is back.”
“What is exciting is I’m hearing from people across the state that we haven’t been engaged in decades, haven’t been giving to the party in decades, and after I was elected, they’re back engaged,” she said.
Fried said so far she’s pleased with the results, pointing to recent visits from President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and other party leaders.
“The party apparatus understands they can’t leave Florida out,” she said. “That too much of the messaging that comes out of Florida permeates across the rest of the country and they had left that message unchecked.”
Several Democrats said there are signs of improvement under Fried’s leadership. The Florida Democratic Party has ramped up its rapid response program in hopes of more aggressively countering the GOP’s messaging. And Fried is said to be courting donors and national groups.
Frankel also said that Biden has signaled that he’ll make a play for Florida in 2024 — a priority that could help draw more national money and attention to the state.
“There have been one-on-one talks with the president on this, and he insists that he’s going to play in Florida,” Frankel said. “I think that would be very important and I think we have a fighting shot.”
The political jolt the party received on Tuesday has only rejuvenated her and Florida Democrats. Following the election, she kicked off a fundraising effort to raise $24,000 in 24 hours ahead of 2024.
“Good morning from the purple, swing state of Florida,” she tweeted on Wednesday.
Hurdles remain for Dems
Incumbent Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters at an election night party after winning his race for reelection in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, as his wife Casey listens. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
But there are challenges that a national campaign apparatus won’t fix.
A new congressional map pushed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis helped Republicans pick up four new House seats in Florida last year. And the GOP’s current voter registration advantage over Democrats, which now stands at more than 450,000, has only continued to grow. Any effort by Democrats to reverse that trend is likely to stretch well beyond 2024.
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said whether Democrats will have a fighting chance next year will depend on their ability to win over the growing number of independent voters in Florida.
“We have an untapped number of people who live there who are not engaged in the political system at all,” Castor said. “And that’s our challenge: to get them off the sidelines and get them engaged.”
There’s also a good chance that the next GOP presidential nominee will be a Floridian; DeSantis, who won reelection last year by a staggering 19-point margin, is likely to enter the 2024 presidential race in the coming weeks, while Trump, whose base of political operations is in Palm Beach, is currently seen as the clear frontrunner for the GOP nod.
“We can say all we want that we’re going to organize, that we’re going to raise money, that we’re going to do all this stuff — register voters, whatever,” one Democratic consultant who has worked in Florida politics said. “And that’s great. We should do those things.”
“But if we’re talking about where things go from here? When things get better? I just don’t think it’s going to be 2024,” the consultant added.
Others are more optimistic about the party’s chances. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.), a 26-year-old who was elected to Congress last year, called the deep series of Democratic losses in 2022 an “anomaly.”
“What we saw happen this past election was an anomaly that had to do a lot of the spending that was going on and Ron DeSantis specifically,” he said. “And I think we’ll see, with the president on the ballot, we’re going to be in a lot better place.”
“Not saying we’re going to turn it blue in one cycle,” he added, “but I think we’re going to see those margins cut pretty heavily.”
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a former DNC chair, acknowledged that the Florida Democratic Party “needs to rebuild,” but added that it’s already in the process of doing so.
But Florida’s political future might just depend as much on what Republicans do with their current power as Democrats’ efforts to regain their footing, said Justin Sayfie, a longtime Florida Republican consultant who served as a spokesperson and top adviser for former Gov. Jeb Bush.
“The pendulum always swings back and forth,” Sayfie said. “I think it’ll swing back faster if there’s a perception that Republicans are not exercising power for the benefit of the state. But if the economy stays strong…if crime stays low, Republicans can expect to maintain power for the foreseeable future.”
Fried sounded a note of optimism for the near future of the party.
“I have said that there’s two paths we can be on,” she said. “There’s one path where I stop the bleeding, that we protect our seats, we flip back some of our House seats that we should not have lost in ’22 and we hold the line…The other path is the pendulum swings back faster and harder and [we] start seeing the unraveling of the Republican Party in the ’24 cycle.”
The more likely scenario, she said, is that the 2024 election cycle will fall “somewhere in the middle” of those two outcomes.
“Somewhere in the middle is really where I’m predicting. That without a doubt we will not ever see a November ’22 election result again.”
Mychael Schnell contributed.
This is the fifth in a five-part series called “How Florida got so conservative.”