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What Florida Democrats have to learn from Stacey Abrams

It wasn’t long ago that the neighboring states seemed destined for similar political fates. That’s no so anymore, as Georgia went for Biden and Florida fell hard for Trump.

COLUMBUS, GA — More than a week after Election Day, 150 miles north of the Florida border, cars packed into the parking lot of the local Civic Center. Progressives came to hear one of their U.S. Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff, speak.

Everyone in that crowd who was asked why Georgia turned blue in 2020 started with the same two words: Stacey Abrams.

At the same time, Orlando state Rep. Anna Eskamani hosted a Zoom town hall to unpack what went wrong for Florida Democrats in 2020.

Progressive panelists offered explanations: The party did not get their message out in enough languages. It took minority voters for granted. Candidates relied on a “consultant cartel” filled with “people who are used to losing.”

The contrast between these simultaneous events demonstrates the consensus among campaign operatives, grassroots organizers, and party officials in both states: In Georgia, Democrats are on the same page. In Florida, they aren’t.

It wasn’t long ago that the neighboring states seemed destined for similar political fates. In 2018, both Democratic nominees for governor, Abrams and Florida’s Andrew Gillum, lost razor-thin races to Donald Trump-aligned Republicans. Democrats in both states picked up seats in key legislative races and anticipated more gains in 2020.

After the election, Abrams promised to end what she called systematic efforts to disenfranchise voters. Gillum, who lost to Gov. Ron DeSantis, promised to help register or engage one million new voters in Florida.

In Georgia, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win that state since 1992. Democrats kept two U.S. Senate races close enough to force critical runoffs in January. Abrams is a bona fide progressive star: she made a push to be Biden’s running mate, and she’s reportedly eyeing another run for governor in 2022.

In Florida, Republicans made gains in both chambers of the state Legislature, picked up seats in Congress and delivered President Trump a decisive victory in a crucial swing state. Gillum, whose voter registration outfit, Forward Florida, has been dogged by legal problems, suffered an embarrassing public meltdown, did a stint in rehab and now hosts a podcast.

In Georgia, Democrats, led by Abrams, have been planning for the better part of a decade for the sweeping demographic changes that have ripened the Peach State into a swing state. Aided in part by geography — the Democratic center of power coalesces conveniently around Atlanta — Democrats’ voter turnout machine runs year-round.

In Florida, Democrats have struggled to unite a sprawling, diverse coalition around a coherent plan to win races. Even though nearly 5.3 million Floridians voted for Biden in 2020, some question whether Florida remains a swing state.

Stephen Lawson, the deputy campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, is a veteran of Republican campaigns in both states. He previously worked for Rick Scott’s gubernatorial re-election effort, and he was on DeSantis’ election team in 2018.

“I tell people up here jokingly that Georgia is the new Florida,” Lawson said.

•••

Or is Florida the old Georgia?

Stacey Abrams started building Georgia’s progressive election infrastructure in 2010, well before it was anybody’s idea of a swing state.

“We didn’t just gear up in 2018,” said Democratic Georgia state Rep. Carolyn Hugley at the Ossoff rally. “Stacey Abrams had the vision to see not only that our demographics were changing, but that we needed to engage them.”

At first, Georgia Democrats’ gains looked insignificant. Abrams said in a recent interview with the New York Times that she had trouble winning donors over at the beginning of the 2010s because the state seemed unwinnable. In 2014, the same year Abrams’ organization, the New Georgia Project, says it registered 69,000 new voters, Republicans solidified their grip on the state Legislature and won the governor’s race by eight points.

Abrams and the Democrats kept at it, and over time, demographics changed the potential electorate in small but important ways. Between 2010 and 2020, Georgia’s population increased 10 percent, faster than the country overall. The state’s Black population rose as well, expanding the base of a reliably Democratic-voting group by hundreds of thousands.

Crucially, in 2016, Georgia began registering adults to vote automatically when they received driver’s licenses. That change, along with political elbow grease, led to an explosion of voter registration. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one million new voters registered between 2016 and 2020. Two-thirds of them were people of color.

Even after Abrams lost to then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp by just 55,000 votes in the 2018 governor’s race, she didn’t stop organizing. Abrams harshly criticized Kemp’s decision to remove hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls the year before an election in which he would appear at the top of the ticket. After she lost, she founded Fair Fight, an organization geared toward “voter protection” in battleground states.

Related: No proof voter suppression kept Stacey Abrams from governorship

Ossoff, who will battle incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue for one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats in a January runoff, said efforts to keep voters engaged have been crucial to Georgia’s Democratic success.

“For 10 years, Georgia has become younger and more diverse, and there’s been tremendous investment in voter registration and protecting ballot access,” Ossoff told reporters after his rally.

In 2020, Georgia’s vote total shot up 22 percent compared to 2016. Biden won the state by about 13,000 votes.

•••

Florida Democrats don’t have a Stacey Abrams.

Over the past decade, progressive politics in the Sunshine State has consisted of minor and fleeting victories scattered throughout long stretches of irrelevance and outright incompetence.

Democrats failed to turn out Barack Obama’s winning 2008 and 2012 coalitions in midterm races in 2010 and 2014, and Republicans dominated the governor’s mansion and state legislative races.

Hillary Clinton lost a close Florida race in 2016, but scored huge wins among crucially important Latino voting populations — particularly in south Florida.

Then in 2017, as the party started to gear up for a potentially favorable midterm election season, the Florida Democratic Party chairman, Stephen Bittel, resigned following a workplace harassment scandal.

Andrew Gillum, who scored an upset win in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary, looked to some to be the leader Florida needed. However, after he lost to DeSantis that year, his own legal and substance abuse issues got in the way of political organizing. (A Gillum spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.)

“In Georgia, the Democrats have felt that they have been underdogs for a long time,” said Kayser Enneking, a Gainesville Democrat who ran for a state Senate seat in 2018 and a state House seat in 2020. “In Florida, despite the fact that we have had the Republican trifecta here for 25 years...they don’t act like an underdog. We don’t act united.”

The Democrats have had their share of bad luck. In 2019, the Republican-led Legislature passed a law watering down a constitutional amendment that would have allowed a Democratic-leaning constituency of ex-felons to register to vote. Federal judges backed up that law. In 2020, the coronavirus halted many volunteer efforts the party had planned for the presidential election.

Juan Peñalosa, the Florida Democratic Party’s executive director, said Florida is on a similar path to the one Georgia took toward building a winning statewide coalition. But Georgia has had more time under the watchful eye of a consistent leader in Abrams.

“It takes time to build infrastructure statewide,” Peñalosa said. He said Democrats are already seeing the fruits of the hard work done by volunteers even during a disappointing campaign season. Democrats won more than 200 municipal-level elections in 2020. The party saw 1.4 million new members sign up to vote by mail — a contingent, Peñalosa noted — that is far more likely to vote than those not signed up to vote by mail.

“We radically changed how people voted,” Peñalosa said.

But Gillum said in a recent Quake Media podcast that he’s concerned for the future.

“I don’t like the direction it appears we’re going here in the state of Florida,” Gillum said. “I am terrified that already too many national Democrats have already decided that there is a ‘blue wall’ and a pathway to the presidency that does not include Florida.”

•••

The challenges facing Florida Democrats and Georgia Democrats over the past decade were not the same.

Georgia is half the size of Florida, and its Democratic strongholds are easier targets. Biden won Atlanta and its surrounding blue counties by about 279,000 more votes than Clinton did. That alone was enough to erase Trump’s 2016 margin of victory.

Florida Democrats, by contrast, have to contend in 10 different media markets, and they have to appeal to one of the most diverse electorates in the country. When the Biden campaign ran Spanish-language ads in Orlando, Tampa and Miami, it adjusted the accent of the voiceover to the neighborhood of the broadcast, Peñalosa said.

Ultimately, Trump may have done better with Florida’s Latino voters than any Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush in 2004.

Republicans also reached voters where they are. The pandemic halted Florida Democratic canvassing and door-knocking efforts, but it didn’t stop Republicans. (In the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, it’s not stopping Democrats, either.)

Peñalosa defended the decision to stop canvassing efforts as the morally correct one. But he said Republican messaging in Florida has been better tailored to Hispanic voters.

“Republicans did a much better job of understanding that this is not one community but really a dozen communities, and they need to be messaged differently,” Peñalosa said.

That messaging included urgent warnings about left-wing radicalism that were hard for Democrats to beat back — particularly because some in the party are sympathetic to Democratic Socialism and defunding the police.

Georgia Democrats are as ideologically diverse as Florida Democrats, and they have faced the same attacks about socialism and the “defund the police” movement. Raphael Warnock, the other Democrat running for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia’s runoff, released an advertisement this week in which he not-so-subtly compared his opponent’s attacks to canine feces.

Ossoff said the culture war issues don’t ultimately matter to most voters. In Georgia, he said, Democrats have broken through by focusing on local issues.

“Solving these problems, improving the quality of daily life for people,” he said. “That’s how we have mobilized this movement.”

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