Optimistic about an anti-Trump wave, Democrats face serious challenges in Florida

For all the anecdotal evidence of a Democratic wave building as Trump’s shadow looms, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.
Protestors cheer after an unruly Trump supporter was removed outside the USF Sun Dome before a 2016 Donald Trump rally. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Protestors cheer after an unruly Trump supporter was removed outside the USF Sun Dome before a 2016 Donald Trump rally. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Aug. 17, 2018|Updated Aug. 19, 2018

TAMPA — No wonder Florida Democrats are so optimistic about this election year.

President Trump's upset election generated unprecedented progressive energy that has barely flickered through 18 months of his presidency, through the Parkland school massacre, through controversial school funding decisions in Tallahassee, and through red tide and algal blooms bedevilling large swaths of Florida.

Membership in local Democratic parties swelled. Grassroots organizations formed to mobilize voters. Democrats stepped up to run for local and state offices in even the most reliably Republican strongholds. They won highly contested elections, including the St. Petersburg mayor's race and three legislative special elections, mirroring a trend seen across the country.

"This is the first election cycle where every door I knock on people are excited to talk to me," said University of Tampa senior Casey Bauer, who is working with the progressive voter turnout group NextGen Florida, which has actively politicked for Democrats since 2014. "People are fired up to get out and vote."

Reality check time. For all the anecdotal evidence of a Democratic wave building as Trump's shadow looms, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical:

• Trump is more popular in Florida, polls show, than much of the rest of the country and not nearly as politically toxic as Democrats often argue.

A late July Mason-Dixon poll found Florida voters closely divided on the president, with 46 percent approving his performance and 43 percent disapproving. A nationwide survey by Morning Consult in July found Florida the only swing state where more voters approved of Trump than disapproved.

• Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is the most vulnerable Democratic senator in the country.

Gov. Rick Scott, his challenger, enjoys the highest approval ratings of his seven-year tenure and in most polls narrowly leads Nelson, the last remaining Florida Democrat holding statewide office.

• Predictions of a surge in Democratic-leaning voters transplanted from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria have not born out in voter registration data. Nor is there evidence of an unusual increase in young Floridians registering since the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School.

A few thousand more Democrats than Republicans have registered to vote in Florida so far this year, but since the 2014 midterms, the Democrats' overall voter registration advantage has shrunk by half. Registered Democrats today make up 37.2 percent of Florida's 13 million voters, and Republicans 35.3 percent.

• Registered Republicans had cast tens of thousands more early vote by mail or in-person than Democrats by week's end, but Democrats are likely to surpass the GOP in early votes by election day. Still, so far the early vote numbers don't point to Florida Democrats having a dramatic enthusiasm advantage over Republicans.

• Finally, Democrats are talking about winning five Florida Senate seats now held by Republicans and up to 10 state House seats.

The race to succeed Republican former state Sen. Jack Latvala in north Pinellas County is Exhibit A for the Democrats' challenge.

Democrats have a strong candidate in former state Rep. Amanda Murphy, but her well-regarded opponent, Republican Ed Hooper, has nearly nine times as much money in his campaign account. His financial edge will grow when outside groups start spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It's a similar story in most of Florida's competitive legislative races. Because Democrats have so little influence in Tallahassee, special interests contribute vastly more money to Republicans.

Marian Johnson, senior vice president of political strategy for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, studies the legislative contests closer than most anyone in Florida. She could see Democrats winning maybe four additional house seats and one of the five targeted senate seats.

"Right now — and this could change after the primary — there is just not a massive blue wave coming that I see," Johnson said.
Florida's Republican primaries up and down the ballot are mainly debates over which Republican more strongly supports the president. Any regular TV watcher might assume from the constant commercials for gubernatorial candidates Jeff Greene and Philip Levine that the Trump factor is at work on the Democratic side as well.

"Jeff is the only candidate in America who was willing to stand up to Trump in his own dining room," the first TV spot for billionaire Greene crowed.

"More than 100 times Philip Levine has taken on Donald Trump," boasts a new ad for Levine, who last said he had no intention of bashing the president while running for office.

Not every Democratic candidate focuses on Trump to that extent, but no one can avoid him.

"It's insane how much of the news cycle he eats up," said Democratic consultant Kevin Cate of Tallahassee. " A candidate has to talk Trump when he does crazy stuff."

Candidates and Democratic activists and operatives say the constant publicity and/or controversy surrounding Trump has created much more interest and awareness of the issues and candidates this cycle. It has made it made it easier to engage with voters who otherwise might not pay much attention.

A protester blows a kiss while being kicked out of a Donald Trump rally during his presidential campaign at the University of South Florida Sun Dome in Tampa in 2016. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
A protester blows a kiss while being kicked out of a Donald Trump rally during his presidential campaign at the University of South Florida Sun Dome in Tampa in 2016. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
“Democratic turnout in midterm elections is usually low because you don’t hear much about politics when it’s not a presidential election,” said J.P. Rosa, a 35-year-old Democratic activist from Clearwater.

"This year, it's all they hear about. They can't escape it, even when they want to," said Rosa, who volunteers with the For Our Future Florida group mobilizing Democratic-leaning voters in 23 counties.

Trump is not the main topic on the minds of Florida voters, however. Democratic candidates and canvassers say they have been struck by how many voters seem more motivated by state issues and antipathy toward Gov. Scott and Republican leadership in Tallahassee.

"What's going on in Washington provided a good opportunity to talk to voters about issues that really matter to them," said Democratic state Rep. Margaret Good of Siesta Key who in an upset election early this year comfortably won a district that Trump had easily carried two years earlier. "Voters in Sarasota care deeply about the environment, we want to fully fund our schools, we want to make sure our children are safe in our schools."

Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Penalosa said the special election victories helped the party and its candidates test and hone their message, their technology and their tactics.

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"Trump was the factor that got these people in the race, Trump is the factor getting people to talk to their neighbors about issues that really matter to them, and Trump is a factor in getting them to knock on their neighbors' door," Penalosa said.

Karen Berman, leader of grassroots group called Fired Up Pinellas created after Trump's victory, noted how few Republicans have stood up to or even gently criticized the president. Because of that, she said, many activists like her barely distinguish a local Republican candidate from a Washington cheerleader for Trump.

"They're all tied together," she said. "Trump just symbolizes every Republican for us."

That passion and anger is part of why liberal activists across Florida are so optimistic about 2018 — much as they were two years ago that Hillary Clinton would become the first woman president two years ago.

"I do think we will see an incredible increase in Democratic turnout – and we will make sure that happens locally," Berman said. "There is a movement, and that movement is still moving."

Langston Taylor contributed to this report.