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The Florida Democratic Party Has A Problem: It's Broke And Disorganized

Vice President Kamala Harris, then the Democratic vice presidential candidate, speaks to supporters at a campaign event in October in Orlando, Fla.
Vice President Kamala Harris, then the Democratic vice presidential candidate, speaks to supporters at a campaign event in October in Orlando, Fla.
John Raoux/AP

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It will be a year and a half before the first votes are cast in the 2022 midterms, but volunteers are already staffing phone banks to start organizing Florida's Democratic voters. Ken Telesco is in Seattle, but he's calling Democrats in Florida. When he gets someone on the line, which is rare, he launches into his appeal, "We're a Democratic organization just calling around to make sure you are registered to vote as a Democrat."

Telesco is a volunteer with Field Team 6, a group focused on a few key states, including Florida. On this day, the phone bank is targeting voters in Republican Congressman Carlos Gimenez's South Florida district. It's one of two Congressional seats in Florida formerly held by Democrats that Republicans flipped in November's election.

Before they begin making calls, phone bank coordinator Gina Harris tells volunteers this effort, geared to the midterm election, is not just about the House and Senate races. She says they need Democrats to focus on down-ballot voting — state and local races.

In Florida and states across the country, Democrats are worried. That may seem odd following an election in which President Biden won the White House and Democrats won control of the U.S. Senate. But in other races, Republicans did well in 2020, picking up seats in Congress and state legislatures. That was especially true in Florida.

Former President Donald Trump carried Florida in November and his coattails helped Republicans, already in control of the state legislature, pick up several additional seats.

Florida Democrats were left pointing fingers and wondering what went wrong. Miami's former mayor, Democrat Manny Diaz says, "We are challenged right now because we lost, and we lost convincingly."

Diaz is the person charged with picking up the pieces and rebuilding the state party as the new party chairman. The 66-year-old says when he campaigned for the job, he didn't know how bad things were, especially with the party's finances. After the election, Florida's Democratic Party was in debt and couldn't pay its bills. Employees found out their health insurance had been canceled. Diaz says that was his first challenge. "It was like survival," he says. "And I'm talking about the kind of survival where you're involved in counting paperclips."

He says the bleeding has stopped, health insurance has been reinstated and he has begun talking to donors about plans to make Democrats competitive in statewide races. That's a major challenge. Although Barack Obama carried Florida twice, few other Democrats have been able to win in statewide. Florida's last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, was elected in 1994, Diaz notes. "God all mighty, right? [In] the last 34 elections for statewide offices, we lost 27."

Despite that history and last year's losses, Diaz believes Florida is still a swing state, one that can go Democratic in Presidential and midterm elections. He has an ambitious plan to open more offices and hire at least eight field directors to oversee canvassing operations with one primary goal: registering new Democratic voters.

That's something Florida's Democratic Party has mostly left to outside groups. Steve Schale is a Democratic strategist who directed President Obama's successful Florida campaigns. "In 2008 and 2012, Democrats had an over 500,000 voter lead among registered voters," he says. "Today it's under 100,000. That's just a function of not doing the basic blocking and tackling of going out and registering people to vote."

What Florida needs, Schale believes, is a sustained voter engagement operation similar to the one spearheaded by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Diaz, Schale says, is on the right track.

Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani believes the party made a mistake last year when it canceled most field operations because of COVID-19. Instead, Democrats relied on vote-by-mail registration. Eskamani, a 30-year-old progressive who represents the Orlando area, says in her campaign volunteers continued to canvass, wearing masks and going door to door. "Turnout in my district was 5% higher than the whole county," she says. "Without a good strong field operation, you're not going to be able to compete."

Eskamani is one of the Democrats mulling a possible bid against Florida's incumbent Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. DeSantis and Florida's U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio are up for re-election next year and neither appears vulnerable at this point. Eskamani says Democrats have another problem. Many of her party's potential candidates are too timid on pocketbook issues important to voters. "If you ask them about a $15 minimum wage, or you ask them about earned sick time, or fixing the unemployment system," Eskamani asks, "how bold are they going to be to actually directly address everyday people's needs?"

Next year's midterm election will have an extra challenge for Democrats in Florida and other states where Republicans control the state legislature. In many places, state lawmakers will be redrawing Congressional and state legislative districts in ways that usually benefit the party in power. In addition, a look at history shows that midterm elections usually don't turn out well for the party that's in the White House.

Jessica Post, who heads the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, says that may not be the case in next year's midterm election. The last time a president's party picked up seats in a midterm election was in 2002 when former President George W. Bush was popular and had just guided the country through a national crisis. She sees a similar storyline emerging in this cycle. "President Biden," she says, "is passing a very popular piece of legislation, the American Rescue plan. He's rolling out a vaccine."

It's possible, Democrats say, that this time history will be on their side.

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