- After Florida Democrats lost almost every critical race, many thought the state’s Democratic Party had hit rock bottom.
- Florida’s Democratic operatives are struggling to understand how they got here and how they can fix the party.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
After Florida Democrats lost almost every critical race, many Floridians thought the state’s party had hit rock bottom. Then came the news that the party had more than $860,000 in outstanding debt at the end of 2020, and a scandal over lapsed payment for staffers’ health insurance following the November election.
Now, four months after the election, the state’s Democratic operatives are struggling to understand how they got here and how they can fix the party.
Donald Trump won Florida in November by record margins, beating out Joe Biden by 3.3 points – a stark win in the perennial swing state. The down-ballot races were even worse. Democrats lost a majority of the state House races, as well as every battleground race for the state Senate.
But while 2020 was by far the worst year in recent history for the state’s Democrats, it was far from an isolated occurrence. Business Insider spoke with several political operatives and elected politicians, all of whom said the same thing: last year’s losses were the culmination of several cycles of strategic missteps, cultural blindness, and internal divides over the direction of the Party.
For more than two decades, Florida hovered in a strange political position. At the national level, it was a highly contested swing state with a huge population, leading many presidential campaigns to see the state as crucial to their success. But when it came to local and state elections, Florida remained overwhelmingly Republican.
Starting in the 1990s, Republicans began to organize on a grassroots level to flip state Senate seats, according to Kartik Krishnaiyer, a political analyst who runs The Florida Squeeze, a local political news site. By the time Bill Clinton swept the state in 1996 by the largest margin in modern history, Republicans already controlled the state legislature. Two years later, in 1998, Republicans would also win the governor’s seat. Since then, Democrats have not won a gubernatorial race in Florida, nor have they held a majority in the legislature.
Part of this is due to the Democratic Party’s insistence on viewing minority groups as a homogenous body, rather than a diverse electorate.
In the most recent election, Republicans took out Spanish-language ads on Telemundo and Latin radio stations, often using them as an opportunity to spread disinformation. Republicans also focused on hot-button issues like immigration, intentionally provoking divides within the Hispanic community. Still, Democratic strategists in the state held fast to their belief that they had “the Hispanic vote” locked down, and failed to counter Republican messaging. The results were devastating: in 2016, Hillary Clinton swept Miami-Dade county, which is overwhelmingly Hispanic, by more than 30 points. In November, Biden won by just seven points.
Democratic field organizers alerted party leadership to their messaging failures during the campaign, but their warnings often fell on deaf ears, according to one senior operative. As early as 2018, organizers in South Florida informed party officials that Republicans were framing Democratic policies as socialist in order to sway Cuban and Venezuelan voters away from the Democratic party. However, the party failed to take meaningful action to combat this messaging.
“Until Democrats do a better job of understanding those distinctions, and not treating the electorate as monolithic, we’re going to continue to falter in Florida,” says Juan Peñalosa, who was the Executive Director of the Florida Democratic Party during the 2020 election.
Independent consultants were behind many of these messaging failures, according to several operatives.
These consultants, many of whom double-dip as lobbyists during off years, are hired by campaigns to craft strategy and lead field organizing efforts. But consultants are not affiliated with the party. Therefore, they have little incentive to build anything beyond that specific election, according to Stephanie Porta, the Director of Florida Rising, a progressive political action group.
These consultants have become a flashpoint between the Party’s progressive wing and the centrists who make up the bulk of it, and who often rely on consultants to run their campaigns. For progressives, consultants embody the hands-off, myopic approach that has led the Party to consistently fail at growing its base. “You can’t just show up in people’s neighborhood when there’s a campaign, you have to show up all the time,” says Anna Eskamani, a progressive state representative from Orlando.
When it comes to showing up, Eskamani says that many centrists are unwilling to match their words to their actions. She points to the fact that many Democrats wavered on a $15 minimum wage law, for which a majority of Floridians voted in November. By failing to identify the Party with concrete, actionable policies, Democrats have kept away large swaths of the electorate.
There are signs that the Florida Democratic Party is starting to change, however.
In January, the party elected Manny Diaz, the former mayor of Miami, as its new chairman. Diaz, who is known for his fundraising prowess, came into the position promising to restructure the party and assuage donors’ concerns about investing in the state. For many donors, the losses the party suffered in the last election were “almost the last straw,” Diaz said in an interview with Business Insider. “I’ve gotten the sense from many donors that they were getting tired of investing in Florida and not seeing results,” he added.
Diaz seems to have been successful, at least in reversing the party’s nearly million-dollar deficit. The Florida Democratic Party raised around $2 million over the last three months and its latest federal report shows that it has almost $200,000 in cash on hand. When accounting for its state accounts, which aren’t listed on the FEC filing, the Party says it has around $750,000 in cash available.
The 2022 election will be a watershed for the party. With both Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio up for reelection in 2022, Democrats have a chance to restructure the party and gain a modicum of control over the state. The roster of potential names runs the gambit, from centrists like Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist to progressives like Eskamani.
To win, the party will have to define itself, both internally and to voters. For many, “it’s not a re-education, but something they will hear for the first time,” says Peñalosa. “What does the Florida Democratic Party stand for? Who are we? And why should you vote for us?”