ORLANDO -- A few dozen Democratic activists gathered in a small and steamy convention center room Saturday morning where they were told they would hear the Florida Democratic Party’s plan to start winning statewide elections. Or, as some Democrats see it, stop losing them.
The blue print? Compete in all 67 counties. Build the ground game earlier. Engage minority groups. Register more voters.
The presentation lasted all of 15 minutes. The reaction was a resounding: “That’s it?”
Florida Democrats from across the state are huddling in Orlando this weekend to regroup after 2018′s devastating losses and to plan for 2020. There is an anxiety hanging over the three-day summit, with Democrats fearful the country’s most important swing state will help President Donald Trump win another four years in office.
Nowhere was that angst more palpable than the room where Democratic leaders unveiled the preliminary results of the “Path to Power,” a months long reflection on why the Blue Wave seemed to miss Florida last year. Hands of grassroots activists and local party leaders shot up across the room after former state Reps. Sean Shaw and Cynthia Chestnut finished their brief power point.
Where was the analysis of where and how Democrats lost its senior senator Bill Nelson by 12,000 votes and a governor’s race by 32,000? Is the party investing in large counties where voter turnout lagged? What’s the strategy to keep growing counties like Pasco from turning more red?
“We cannot be ignored at the risk of losing statewide elections again and again and again,” said John Ford with Pasco County Democrats.
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Heads shook as Shaw and Chestnut struggled to appease concerns. Others said the party didn’t listen to what its own members from across the state had to say. For example, the Path to Power commission didn’t get to see the results of a statewide survey of local party officials on the 2018 election, which Shaw acknowledged was frustrating.
To many, the outlook sounded just like what they heard after narrow loses in 2010 and 2014.
“I didn’t see any groundbreaking ideas,” said Stacey Patel, chair of the Brevard County Democrats. “We’ve seen reports like this before, but then they sit on the shelf. How are we going to actually get this done?”
If the solutions sound simple, Shaw said, that’s because they are. Some of the basics of running a statewide campaign -- following up on vote-by-mail ballots, registering new voters, sustained outreach in bedrock voting blocs -- have long eluded the Florida Democratic Party. It’s not enough that Democratic registrations outnumber Republicans by 250,000.
“It’s not genius stuff,” Shaw said, while also emphasizing that the report was not finalized yet. “This is just blocking and tackling and putting the resources behind it to do it.”
Other 2018 failures were acknowledged. Chestnut lamented the party’s reliance on out-of-state consultants to orchestrate outreach in minority communities.
In Alachua County last year, "someone was brought in from Oregon to work in the African-American community -- all of the two black people in Oregon,” Chestnut said. The quip elicited laughs and broke up some of the tension, but the point, Chestnut assured, was to say that they won’t make that mistake again.
“The commitment is here to grow from local talent," she said.
The party is putting many of its eggs in Andrew Gillum’s pledge to engage 1 million new voters by 2020 with the $3 million he has left over from his unsuccessful campaign for governor. Gillum has been treated like a rock star in Orlando, with no signs that Democratic rank-and-file are concerned by recent news that he is a focal point of a new federal grand jury subpoena.
In a packed reception room Friday, Gillum posed for selfies and encouraged supporters to ignore the noise and stay focused on 2020.
“If we’re even marginally successful in this effort, say we don’t hit the 1 million person mark, if we get 250,000 people into the process here in the state of Florida," Gillum said, "that can be pivotal to what happens to Florida’s 29 electoral (college) votes.”
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