Florida Democrats have suffered crushing down-ballot losses in the last two election cycles, and next year, they need a win — badly. But in 2022, it won’t be easy.
That reality was palpable as Democrats huddled over the weekend at an Orlando hotel for the Florida Democratic Party’s annual Leadership Blue conference, an event that the party uses to regroup, talk strategy and energize its base.
The party wants to use 2022, which features five statewide races including governor and U.S. Senate, to end a long-running streak of disastrous election cycles that have left Democrats demoralized and without any real power at nearly every level of government in Florida.
As they plot a pathway to victory, Democrats say they are ready to do the work, but they are also painfully aware of the many hurdles that lie ahead.
In interviews with half a dozen Democrats and from comments made at panel discussions, there is growing consensus that the party has a messaging problem, as it faces Republicans who are flush with cash and who for the first time in modern history have a slight voter registration advantage over Democrats.
“I just don’t think we’re doing a good enough job talking about us, how good we are, and the things we will do if you give us the keys to the kingdom,” said Sean Shaw, a former Democratic state representative and attorney general candidate. “Something is wrong if people are willing to vote for a minimum wage increase but will then vote for politicians who are outspoken against it on the same ballot.”
There is also growing annoyance among some Democrats that as they face headwinds next year, Florida does not seem to be getting the national attention it has previously received.
“It’s literally like being in a life preserver out in the middle of the water and watching the boat go, and they are waving to you as they go by. It’s not because they didn’t know you fell off the boat, they see you and they’re waving goodbye to you,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, a Hollywood Democrat. “That’s what it feels like.”
Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat who is running in the three-way Democratic gubernatorial primary along with Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, agrees.
“I think that Democrats nationally, including many of the donors and including many of the electeds have given up on Florida,” Taddeo said in an interview Saturday. “We’ve lost so many times. That’s probably it. But I know that we can win. I know that if we bring the coalition of voters we can win.”
In particular, Taddeo says the party needs to pay attention to the “hemorrhaging of the Hispanic vote.”
The Hispanic and Black vote
Cesar Ramirez, the president of the Hispanic Caucus within the party, lately has noticed Democratic candidates are paying more attention to his caucus.
Two years ago, he could barely get any top Democratic candidates to stop by and speak at his panel. This year, all of them wanted to attend and speak to attendees at his event on Saturday, and he is also being asked to host more and more workshops.
Ramirez said he believes part of the reason is that Democrats have been forced to come to terms with the 2020 election results, which showed President Joe Biden had a lackluster performance in Miami-Dade County, in part driven by President Donald Trump’s gains in Hispanic districts.
“I think that from 2020, I think that a lot of us are tired of losing,” Ramirez said. “When I say losing, some people need to get out of the mode of red versus blue and our team’s loss. I don’t really see it that way. When I say that we are tired of losing, I am tired of losing the fight to protect my daughter in school or making sure that my mother and mother-in-law’s Medicare is really supporting their health.”
Ramirez is saddened to admit that he Hispanic vote in Florida is “starting to become very pitiful.” But he said he is heartened to see top Democratic candidates are starting to take the time to educate themselves and their teams on how to do outreach to Hispanic voters.
“I think that the Democratic Party has become not only more aware, but more concerned about the issues that are presented to Hispanics across the state,” Crist said in an interview.
A panel discussion by the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida had a similar discussion when it met Saturday.
“We need to learn the lessons of Georgia,” said. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat.
In 2020, Georgia turned blue by making gains among affluent, college-educated and older voters in the suburbs around Atlanta, according to an Upshot analysis of the results by precinct. Black voter turnout increased, too, the analysis showed, but less than that of some other groups.
Driskell said she has had conversations with Black organizers in Georgia and she learned that part of the voter registration efforts included a large education component. She said Black voters sometimes do not understand the “mechanics of how to vote.”
“That shows up particularly with our Black men, who may not want to admit that they do not have a plan to vote, or that they do not know where the polling places are and they are afraid if they go there and their signature doesn’t match, they might be rejected,” she said. “These are not complex problems, they are direct solutions to this.”
Driskell suggested Democrats need to be doing more engagement on voter education.
Other dynamics at play
At the moment, the Democratic Party is staying out of the Democratic primary in the governor’s race.
“The good news is we are all friends, I’ve worked with them for a very long time,” said FDP Chair Manny Diaz. “Right now, my job is to build the structure that the nominee needs to win, whoever that is.”
Ramirez said he was excited to see Taddeo jump into the governor’s race, not just because she is a Hispanic woman, but because he saw her candidacy shake up the race.
“I think it raises everybody’s game,” he said. “Now, they realize they have a candidate they have to be concerned with and see if she is going to be with the Hispanic community. So now they have to pay a little bit more attention, and I appreciate that.”
Jenne said he is excited about all three candidates. But said that the bad news is that only one can win the primary and even then, a victory is not guaranteed. What is guaranteed is that their seats will be vacant as a result of their candidacy and Democrats will be left with even fewer seats.
“So then, that creates a whole other tailspin with who get in those seats,” Jenne said.
Meanwhile, as Democrats talked about unity and coming together, there were some noticeable absences from the event.
Nearly the entire Senate Democratic caucus skipped the annual event because they were holding a fundraiser in Las Vegas, Nevada. Only four senators attended the party’s event.
Christian Ulvert, a spokesman for Senate Victory, the campaign arm of the Florida Senate Democrats, said in a statement that the out-of-state fundraiser had been planned when the party rescheduled its event from October to the same weekend as the fundraising trip.
“Senate Victory congratulates the Florida Democratic Party and Chair Diaz on their annual Leadership Blue weekend,” he said, and noted Sen. Victor Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat was tapped to share the caucus’ remarks at the main event Saturday night.