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Florida Democrats face an existential crisis after Gillum’s loss in race for governor

Democrats went into Tuesday’s elections confident that a generational odyssey in the political wilderness would end. It didn't.
Supporters of Florida gubernatorial Democratic candidate Mayor Andrew Gillum look on while he gives his concession speech along side his wife First Lady R. Jai Gillum, running mate Chris King and his wife Kristen King on the campus Florida A&M University in Tallahassee on Tuesday. (OCTAVIO JONES | Times)
Published Nov. 8, 2018

Florida Democrats believed 2018 would be different.

After two decades of watching moderate candidates fail, the party had a young, charismatic nominee for governor on the ticket, a majority-minority slate of Cabinet candidates and an unpopular president in the White House dragging down Republicans all year. With apparent momentum and millions of dollars pouring into get-out-the-vote efforts, Florida Democrats went into Tuesday's elections confident that a generational odyssey in the political wilderness would end.

Instead, Democrats suffered a crushing defeat. Even as suburban congressional districts flipped blue in South Florida, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum lost by razor-thin margins to Gov. Rick Scott and former congressman Ron DeSantis, respectively. Dreams of a new era of relevance built atop a multicultural coalition collapsed as the top-of-ticket races ended in a familiar result: about 1 point short.

Bill Nelson's moonshot: Can a recount find 30,000 votes to keep his Senate seat from going to Rick Scott?

On the morning after, strategists and activists awoke to a crisis of confidence and a humbling acknowledgment that even as Democrats are winning in Wisconsin and Kansas, in Florida Republicans are always about 60,000 votes ahead. Not only do Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature, they'll likely control the Governor's Mansion, the Cabinet and both U.S. Senate seats in the near future.

"It was brutal. I don't know. We've got to move on. It's not like a major political party just packs up and leaves," said Ben Pollara, the Miami-based strategist behind Agriculture Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried. "We did well nationally. But we got our asses kicked in Florida."

Gillum was supposed to be the cure for the party's woes. Only 39 and poised to become Florida's first black governor, he had Democratic leaders believing he would excite their voter base, boost voter turnout and help Nelson and down-ballot candidates win their own races. Gillum himself predicted that after years of going "Republican-lite," Florida Democrats would win by rallying their voters with an unabashedly progressive agenda.

He was partly right.

After dismal turnout led Charlie Crist to a 64,000-vote loss in 2014, Democrats voted in droves this fall, edging Republicans in early and absentee voting. Gillum earned more than 4 million votes, beating Crist's vote total by more than 40 percent. And the results were different: Instead of losing by a percentage point, Gillum lost by about six-tenths of a point.

The loss was crushing, and left some strategists believing that Florida, particularly in midterm elections, isn't a swing state any longer. Of the past 26 statewide races, including presidential contests and Cabinet elections, Democrats have won just five.

"This Groundhog Day conversation has happened every Wednesday morning after the election every two years," said Fernand Amandi, a Miami pollster who helped Donna Shalala flip a congressional district blue. "There's enough of a losing streak now that there's no longer a question of whether there should be a change or a massive reevaluation, but why it hasn't already happened."

Some in the party caution reading too much into Tuesday's results. After all, for the third consecutive cycle, the top-ticket races were decided by less than a point.

Democratic supporters react they watch results for the U.S. Senate during at an election party for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Tuesday in Orlando. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Nelson and Agriculture Commissioner candidate Fried, meanwhile, are headed to recounts against their opponents. And Democratic turnout did significantly increase. Pricey get-out-the-vote efforts by Tom Steyer's political organizations, NextGen America and For Our Future, helped spike voter turnout in ways that appear to have shifted congressional races in Miami-Dade.

But what the party didn't expect was that Republican turnout would also spike as President Donald Trump ramped up his own campaign and stumped hard for Scott and DeSantis.

In an election where 62 percent of the state voted — easily topping the 2014 midterm's 51 percent turnout — staunchly Republican counties such as Sumter and Collier saw turnout topping 70 percent. Though far smaller than Democratic strongholds in Miami-Dade and Broward, Republican margins in rural counties tipped the scales for DeSantis and Nelson, reaffirming Trump's Republican Party instead of rejecting it.

"Florida Republicans are just fine with Trump. They did not send him a message," said Eric Johnson, who ran Democrat Patrick Murphy's 2016 U.S. Senate campaign. "Plenty of Republicans came out and stuck with the ticket down the line."

South Florida turnout, meanwhile, came in around 57 percent.

"We under-performed in Broward and Dade," said Democratic booster Chris Korge, who helped organize big-money fundraisers for Gillum with Hillary Clinton. Korge noted that two years ago, Clinton also performed about five points better than Gillum in Miami "Right there is the difference in this race."

Determining just how things went sideways will take more than a day. A CNN exit poll suggests Gillum earned 86 percent of the African-American vote, well shy of the more than 90 percent that Democrats assumed when they nominated a black candidate. The same poll found that Gillum won 54 percent of the independent vote, which didn't shift enough to overcome a Republican voter edge.

Overall, Democrats agreed Wednesday that one step toward ending their quarter-century in the proverbial desert lay in treating elections as a never-ending process. Instead of throwing all their efforts into election cycles, Olivia Bercow, a NextGen America spokeswoman, said Democrats should immediately get back to bench-building and registering voters. She also noted that voters passed a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to more than 1 million ex-felons, about half of whom have been registered Democrats in the past, according to an analysis of the voter rolls in more than 20 counties.

Amandi, though, wonders if Democrats need to tear down their whole organization and rebuild it from scratch. There are no moral victories in politics, he said, and losing — whether by 1 point or 10 — is still losing.

"How is it that Montana and Kansas can elect a Democratic governor but purple state Florida can't?" he said. "This is 24 years out in the Governor's Mansion wilderness."

McClatchy reporter Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this report.