the inside game

The Agonizing Fall of the Florida Democrat

The few left in office insist their state isn’t a lost cause … yet.

Photo: Marco Bello/REUTERS
Photo: Marco Bello/REUTERS

Ron DeSantis’s second term as governor of Florida was less than a week old when a surprise letter from Manny Diaz, the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, landed in the inboxes of his beleaguered colleagues. He was resigning.

It wasn’t his departure that was shocking so much as his parting message, a weary and withering critique of the organization that ended 2022 with zero statewide officeholders and DeSantis reelected by 19 points. Diaz wrote of his attempts to “build a united party without silos, focused exclusively on our purpose — to elect Democrats,” but mostly of his discovery of “a long-standing, systemic and deeply entrenched culture resistant to change; one where individual agendas are more important than team; where self-interest dominates and bureaucracies focus on self-preservation.”

Over 2,300 words, Diaz indicted the party’s priorities, messaging, and organizing strategy. A former Miami mayor and Michael Bloomberg ally who took control of the committee after the 2020 election, he reserved his harshest criticism for his party’s outreach efforts. They had been conducted largely via cell phone. “Supporters of relational canvassing argue that 46k ‘relational touchpoints’ are the equivalent of 348k door knocks,” he wrote. “You know what is ALSO the equivalent of knocking 348k doors? Actually knocking 348k doors.” He relayed the story of a 2021 City Council race in Jacksonville, when he learned that a local collective-bargaining agreement meant that party staffers would take off work the day before Election Day and that they refused to swap to an alternative day off. “Without the three-legged stool of adequate resources, boots on the ground and effective messaging, the FDP has been rendered practically irrelevant to the election of Democrats,” he lamented.

The letter’s recipients needed no reminder of the situation’s urgency; few doubt at this point that Joe Biden will face a Floridian — either DeSantis or Donald Trump — in his upcoming reelection campaign. And it goes without saying, in this crowd, that Florida’s 30 electoral votes make it the crown jewel of swing states in presidential races. Yet Diaz’s finale was hardly rousing. “Maybe it is not always about trying to fix something that is broken. Maybe it is about starting over and creating something better,” he wrote, before concluding, “I wish my successor Godspeed.”

In public, Diaz’s letter was greeted with the online equivalent of a heavy sigh. “I like Manny. But you can’t lose by 19 points and get to stay to talk about it,” tweeted newly sworn-in Democratic representative Jared Moskowitz. Yet the eyerolls barely masked the recurrence of a deeper anxiety that’s dogged Florida Democrats in recent years. Writing under the official blue “FL DEMS” logo, Diaz pointed to a “history of extremely close elections” and voters’ pattern of supporting ballot measures aligned with Democratic priorities to insist that “Florida is not a red state.” However, a dozen years since Barack Obama last won it, and with national party leaders now confronting the sorry state of Florida Democrats’ central infrastructure as they calculate how to deploy money and attention ahead of 2024, the question is inescapable: If Florida’s not a red state, is it a lost cause?

The official answer is “of course not.” Even if Biden showed in 2020 that 270 electoral votes are reachable without Florida, that path to the presidency is exceedingly difficult and requires a risky reliance on the battlegrounds of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, not to mention swingy Arizona and Georgia. “There’s no presidential candidate or campaign that can write off a state that has traditionally been purple and try to make the math work in another way,” said representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Wasserman Schultz told me she had been given specific promises that Florida remains an electoral target by leaders within both the White House and the Democratic National Committee, which she ran between 2011 and 2016. Maxwell Frost, the 26-year-old who became the youngest member of Congress last month, said he’d directly asked DNC chairman Jaime Harrison about his plans for Florida at a recent event, and that he’d gotten some reassurance. But Frost, who came up as an anti-gun-violence activist and now represents the Orlando area, said he wasn’t exactly encouraged by his first experience on the ballot: “It’s more than the national party, it’s the DCCC, donors, national sentiment — we really found that they threw up their hands and gave up on Florida for this last cycle.” As for Harrison’s promise, he said, “I give him the benefit of the doubt on it, but what is he going to say? We will have to keep pressure not just on Jaime, but people across the country.”

No one believes national Democrats will abandon Florida entirely, but a more skeptical approach than that of previous election cycles appears to be in the offing. National party strategists have clearly deemphasized Florida in their early planning for 2024, though none will either admit that out loud or rule out a full-fledged effort down the line. The DNC began sending resources to 2024-priority states during the midterms, but while Florida is on the list to receive press-staff help, it didn’t get the full suite of cash and support that eight other battlegrounds did. And relations between the national hub and Florida’s Democratic leaders have become strained — Diaz’s letter hinted at strategic disagreements, including an incident when he wanted to replace DNC-backed staffers and was brushed back.

The broader reasons for concern are more structural. Florida is an expensive state in which to advertise thanks to its size and proliferation of media markets, and recent elections feed into the perception — deepened by the presence of Trump and DeSantis — that it’s been lurching to the right. Although Obama won it twice, no Democrat has been elected governor in the state since 1994, and recent years have seen Democrats encountering problems turning out Black Floridians. In probably the best-known shift, Democrats have also begun struggling more than ever before with Latino voters in south Florida. There, conservatives have invested heavily in painting Democrats as communists and socialists, especially in messaging targeted toward Cuban and Venezuelan immigrants. Last fall DeSantis beat Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor who ran for his old job as a Democrat, by 11 points in Miami-Dade County, the same place Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 30. Meanwhile, local Democratic infrastructure has atrophied. Diaz took over a party that was $800,000 in debt, and the number of registered Republicans in the state recently overtook the number of Democrats for the first time. Republicans now have a supermajority in the state legislature, where they’re pursuing an end to permit requirements for carrying concealed guns as DeSantis backs a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

This dire circumstance was cemented by November’s elections. Democrats around the country celebrated dodging an expected red wave; it still crashed down in Florida, where DeSantis expanded the victory he earned in 2018 by less than half a percentage point to the widest margin of victory in a Florida gubernatorial race since 1982. (That was two political realignments ago.) The results looked like what pols had once expected from the country as a whole: Republican turnout hardly surged, but Democrats were hard-pressed to vote. Democratic data strategist Tom Bonier pointed out that the state’s first-time voters were 11 points more Democratic than Republican in 2018, but 22 points more Republican this time around amid a plummet in young Democrats’ participation.

One reason Florida’s results looked little like other states’ had to do with the options, Bonier said. Pointing to races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and Nevada, he argued that “the Republican candidates were viewed as extremists, and that was generally accepted conventional wisdom, even in media coverage — that wasn’t a stretch. The difference was those were all challengers. Nationally, Democrats look at Ron DeSantis and think he’s just a Trump clone. My sense is most people in Florida just see him as the governor, and when they are hearing about him it’s a much more nuanced and layered story than we’re hearing nationally.” It fits a pattern, he said. In 2020, Trump lost ground in many states where he was seen as more extreme than in 2016. Florida voters’ perception of him didn’t shift that way.

Nonetheless, some Democrats see these dynamics as reason for hope. For one thing, Florida wasn’t a priority for the party’s gubernatorial or Senate campaign organizations given the number of more fruitful targets, so the candidates simply didn’t receive as much money as they might in a more promising year. And if Democrats’ 2022 failure in Florida was turnout-based, they figure, the broader factors that are widely assumed to be swinging in Republicans’ way there were not, in fact, determinative. “This is what turnout should have looked like with a Democrat in the White House with low popularity numbers and high inflation,” said Bonier, predicting that Democrats will have a better economy and an extreme opponent to run against next time around. (“We’ve got the king of chaos as the governor of our state,” said Wasserman Schultz, who added that her own polling has shown Florida voters more interested in health care and economic matters than the culture wars DeSantis is now betting on.)

For his part, Biden has kept more of an eye on the state than widely known. He privately asked to be kept apprised of the state’s races throughout the midterms even as he acknowledged the gubernatorial and senate races were uphill climbs, according to people who spoke with him at the time, and he returned there repeatedly even as candidates in other states asked him to steer clear. Now, effectively soft-launching his re-election campaign, he visited Florida right after Wisconsin on his post-State of the Union publicity tour.

The hard part for local candidates and officials might still be convincing the rest of the party they’re worth the investment. “We have just come off an election cycle in which there was a quarter-billion-dollar gap in the advantage they had,” warned Wasserman Schultz. Frost, whose election last fall was seen locally as a bright spot for the party, said he’s already heard concern that donors expect to be stretched thin in 2024, considering that Biden will be up for reelection and Democrats face an uphill battle to keep the Senate. That might bode poorly for Florida-specific investments. (Diaz lamented the rise of outside groups not affiliated with the party in his letter: “National Democratic organization[s] contributed just 2% of the amount they invested in 2018. Conversely, Florida donors contributed almost $20m to these same organizations to spend this money outside Florida. Our coordinated effort raised less than 50% of the required budget.”)

Still, as Frost sees it, the pitch to donors could be fairly straightforward: DeSantis only beat his 2018 opponent Andrew Gillum by about 30,000 votes. “Imagine how different the world would be if a million dollars more had been put into that race,” he said. And some on the ground in the state have been working to convince nationally focused Democrats that 2024 will simply be a different kind of election cycle altogether. For one thing, Biden will have a record to run on and an optimistic case for reelection, unlike Crist, who focused on ousting DeSantis. And it’s gospel to local Democrats that no matter how the GOP primary goes, Trump and DeSantis will soon be at war, splitting Florida’s Republicans.

More practically, some Democratic groups are working to get a measure legalizing recreational marijuana on the ballot, which may help Democratic turnout, said Frost. He pointed out that in three of the last four election cycles, the party’s turnout appeared to be helped by ballot initiatives — on broadening medical marijuana laws in 2016, on restoring voting rights for felons in 2018, and on raising the minimum wage in 2020.

Of course, no Democrats won statewide in those years, at least on the top of the ticket. When I asked Frost if anyone from the national party had gathered the remaining Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation to offer them some kind of concerted assurance that Florida would continue to get their resources, or an indication about what comes next in their planning, he laughed quietly. He paused for a second, then sighed: “That would be nice.”

The Agonizing Fall of the Florida Democrat