Opinion | How to rebuild the Florida Democratic Party * Florida

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While Democrats across the country defied tradition, expectations and naysayers on Election Day, Florida Democrats were crushed.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSandis, a man whose unironic campaign slogan was “Keep Florida Free,” beat his Democratic opponent, Rep. Charlie Crist, by more than 19 points. The track was rare in a swing state known for squealing-tight racing.

DeSantis garnered resounding majorities from nearly every category of voter: Latinos, women, men, college-educated, suburban, urban and rural. Independents sided with the incumbent, as did voters age 45 and older.

The governor flipped eight of the 13 counties he lost in 2018 and improved his standing in all 67 Florida counties. In Latino-heavy Miami-Dade, his numbers rose 16 percentage points. Other Republicans also fared better. Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat, by more than 16 percentage points.

No Democrats will hold statewide office next year for the first time since the late 1800s.

“Complete collapse,” Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant in Florida, he said on social media on election night. “Either we restore or we perish.”

Florida’s Democratic Party has had a dismal run over the past decade, but now it’s bottomed out. Political activists I’ve spoken to tell me that the critical gears of political victory — strong voter registration, accurate voter lists, grassroots buzz, permanent offices, smart messaging — are either non-existent or on life support.

I am also told that the Florida Democratic Party does not have a reliable database of its voters and does not have a sophisticated function to identify would-be Democrats. Another concern: the state party’s over-reliance on expensive out-of-state consultants who don’t understand Florida’s complex mix of people or on in-state strategists with outdated ideas.

No wonder Florida Democrats rolled.

“After this cycle, if a political infrastructure isn’t built, it’s inexcusable,” said Thomas Kennedy, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a Florida political activist. “We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge our failures and move forward. These are serious problems.”

Some Florida Democrats point out, correctly, that this election season has been a particularly difficult year for many reasons.

DeSantis is a juggernaut, but Florida itself is now a hotbed for Republicans across the country, with Donald Trump anchored in Palm Beach and DeSantis eyeing the White House. Many newcomers headed here, hearing the siren call of zero state income tax and a so-so-so-sad attitude toward low-wage workers, struggling renters, and others.

It’s also true that the abortion issue didn’t resonate in Florida as it did in much of the rest of the country, no doubt prompting national Democratic groups to leave the state. In 2018, they spent $58 million. This year, it was a whopping $1.4 million. But you can’t blame them. Why take Florida Democrats seriously if the state party doesn’t take itself seriously?

Now for the hard part: the Republicans deserved to win. After being whipped in 2012 by President Barack Obama, the state’s Democratic Party buckled down and did the hard, expensive work of nurturing, locating and engaging Florida’s Republican voters, particularly Latinos.

Over time, the state GOP has done everything Democrats haven’t, and its voter outreach strategies should be emulated. Local and state GOP organizers, following the blueprint of the Libre Initiative, which helps Latinos with driver’s tests and citizenship and English classes, have echoed the idea. The result is the loyalty and activism of the Republican Party.

No wonder 58 percent of Latino voters, many of them Puerto Rican, chose DeSantis.

The base approach is expensive. But ads, messages and texts just aren’t enough. The Florida Democratic Party needs to convince donors that it can right the ship by creating and executing a plan for a sustained campaign, Kennedy said.

The party must also embrace a straightforward message of economic populism if it hopes to recapture the working class and Latinos. And he must focus on recruiting young, quality candidates for local and statewide office — another longtime Florida Republican strategy.

When it comes to the 2024 primary, Florida Democrats need to stop limiting it to registered Democrats and open it up to independent voters. Voters who identify with neither major party now make up 29 percent and growing. By opening the primaries to everyone, the Democratic Party wouldn’t have to wait until August before the election to start courting independents.

“Voter depression among Democrats was a bigger problem than voter suppression,” Kennedy said.

The irony is that there is a winning playbook. It belonged to Obama and his organizers. Democrats cannot afford to cede Florida to the Republicans. It’s too big and too important, with 30 electoral votes in 2024, for donors to write off.

And with DeSantis and Trump looking set to do battle in 2024, I’d start the rebuild today.

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