The Democratic Party of Florida this week launched a tour into parts of the state that most heavily voted for President Donald Trump and have long skewed Republican in statewide elections.
The goal of the tour is to reach out to voters and support candidates in communities that have not had Democratic representation for years, in some cases decades. Beginning Tuesday night with a stop in LaBelle —a city of 4,700 in Hendry County —the party has planned visits to Putnam, Bay, Okaloosa, Walton County, Washington, Franklin, Jackson, Wakulla and Citrus counties in the months leading up to the November election.
"Rural communities like mine are hurting, from struggling to afford healthcare to a lack of economic opportunity, and that's why I'm running for office," said Catherine Price, a first-time candidate from Polk County running for state Senate as a Democrat. "We are giving our community an alternative and showing them we share the same values and want the same things for our community."
In recent decades, the middle of the state and the Panhandle have become Republican strongholds. In 2016, Trump crushed Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton in rural areas, and those regions also helped carry Republican Gov. Rick Scott to a second term in 2014. Statehouse races there are often decided in Republican primaries because Democrats haven't yielded a challenger.
But many of those counties have not fared as well as the rest of the state during the economic recovery the Scott has touted in his campaign for U.S. Senate. At 3.9 percent, Florida's unemployment rate is close to pre-recession levels, but 36 counties have fewer jobs than a decade ago and many have rapidly declining populations.
Democrats say they this as an opportunity to win over new voters.
"People in rural communities have lost jobs and as a result are foregoing health care because they cannot afford it, they are working two and three minimum wage jobs, because good paying jobs have left their communities by the thousands and families are suffering the consequences of twenty years of Republican rule in Florida,"said Florida Democratic Party chair Terrie Rizzo.
Republicans, though, remain on the ground there, too.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican candidate for governor, has embarked on a frantic tour of the state since launching his campaign that has included barbecues and breakfasts in many of the counties where Democrats are trying to make inroads.
Last weekend, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Palm Coast Republican also running for governor, toured the panhandle on a strong pro-Trump message.
Putnam, a Bartow native, has stopped in towns with as few as 300 people.
"Grass roots is the foundation of my campaign," Putnam told the crowd in Port St. Joe in April. "This is what our founders intended. Not for candidates who are too good to come to small towns."
In one of the most important races this year for Democrats — the fight for the governor's mansion — some of the most vocal candidates have most often battled each other over who is the more progressive Democrat on climate change, gun laws, marijuana, granting voting rights to felons who have served their time and enacting an equal rights amendment.
But in rural areas, the state Democratic Party is instead focusing its message on kitchen-table economic issues like healthcare, public education and jobs, and hoping voters there will be more open to their message after 20 years of Republican control of Tallahassee.
"From Escambia to Madison, to Hendry and Glades counties, the Florida Democratic Party is committed to reaching out to all voters," Rizzo said. "We are confident that when voters hear about our candidates, they will be as excited as we are for November."