ORLANDO — Florida Democrats have suffered crushing down-ballot losses in the last two election cycles, and next year, they need a win — badly. But in 2022, it won’t be easy.
That reality was palpable as Democrats huddled over the weekend at an Orlando hotel for the Florida Democratic Party’s annual Leadership Blue conference, an event that the party uses to regroup, talk strategy and energize its base.
The party wants to use 2022, which features five statewide races including governor and U.S. Senate, to end a long-running streak of disastrous election cycles that have left Democrats demoralized and without any real power at nearly every level of government in Florida.
As they plot a pathway to victory, Democrats say they are ready to do the work, but they are also painfully aware of the many hurdles that lie ahead.
In interviews with half a dozen Democrats and from comments made at panel discussions, there is growing consensus that the party has a messaging problem as it faces Republicans who are flush with cash and who for the first time in modern history have a slight voter registration advantage.
“I just don’t think we’re doing a good enough job talking about us, how good we are, and the things we will do if you give us the keys to the kingdom,” said Sean Shaw, a former Democratic state representative and attorney general candidate. “Something is wrong if people are willing to vote for a minimum wage increase but will then vote for politicians who are outspoken against it on the same ballot.”
There is also growing annoyance among some Democrats that, as they face headwinds next year, Florida does not seem to be getting the national attention it has previously received.
“It’s literally like being in a life preserver out in the middle of the water and watching the boat go, and they are waving to you as they go by,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, a Hollywood Democrat.
Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat who is running in the three-way Democratic gubernatorial primary along with Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, agrees.
“I think that Democrats nationally, including many of the donors and including many of the electeds, have given up on Florida,” Taddeo said in an interview Saturday. “We’ve lost so many times. That’s probably it. But I know that we can win.”
In particular, Taddeo says, the party needs to pay attention to the “hemorrhaging of the Hispanic vote.”
The Hispanic and Black votes
Cesar Ramirez, the president of the Hispanic Caucus within the party, lately has noticed Democratic candidates paying more attention to his caucus.
Two years ago, he could barely get any top candidates to speak at his panel. This year, all of them wanted to attend, and he is also being asked to host more workshops.
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Ramirez said he believes Democrats have been forced to come to terms with the 2020 election results, which showed President Joe Biden had a lackluster performance in Miami-Dade County, in part driven by President Donald Trump’s gains in Hispanic districts.
“I think that a lot of us are tired of losing,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said he is heartened to see top Democratic candidates starting to take time to educate themselves and their teams on outreach.
“I think that the Democratic Party has become not only more aware, but more concerned about the issues that are presented to Hispanics across the state,” Crist said in an interview.
A panel by the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida had a similar discussion Saturday.
“We need to learn the lessons of Georgia,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Tampa Democrat.
In 2020, Georgia turned blue by making gains among affluent, college-educated and older voters in the suburbs around Atlanta, according to an Upshot analysis of the results by precinct. Black voter turnout increased, too, the analysis showed, but less than that of some other groups.
Driskell said she has had conversations with Black organizers in Georgia, and she learned that part of the voter registration efforts included a large education component. She said Black voters sometimes do not understand the “mechanics of how to vote.”
“That shows up particularly with our Black men, who may not want to admit that they do not have a plan to vote, or that they do not know where the polling places are, and they are afraid if they go there and their signature doesn’t match, they might be rejected,” she said.
Driskell suggested Democrats need more engagement on voter education.
Other dynamics at play
At the moment, the Democratic Party is staying out of the Democratic primary in the governor’s race.
“Right now, my job is to build the structure that the nominee needs to win, whoever that is,” said party chair Manny Diaz.
Jenne said he is excited about all three candidates. But their seats will be vacant as a result of their candidacies.
Meanwhile, as Democrats talked about unity, there were some noticeable absences.
Nearly the entire Senate Democratic caucus skipped the conference because they were holding a fundraiser in Las Vegas. Only four senators attended.
Christian Ulvert, a spokesman for Senate Victory, the campaign arm of the Florida Senate Democrats, said in a statement that the out-of-state fundraiser had been planned when the party rescheduled its event from October to the same weekend.