Florida’s Senate is safely GOP this year. Are Democrats blowing it again?

Democrats need only pick up three state Senate seats to do something they haven’t done in more than 20 years: share power with Republicans. But doing so is harder than it looks.
The State of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee. FILE. TIMES PHOTO SCOTT KEELER
The State of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee. FILE. TIMES PHOTO SCOTT KEELER [ Times (2012) ]
Published Oct. 25, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s government could undergo a seismic shift it hasn’t seen in more than a quarter century.

On Nov. 3, Democrats need to pick up three state Senate seats to share power in the chamber with the long-dominant Republicans in Tallahassee. If they pull it off, it would be the first time since 1999 that the party even partly controlled any of the three major houses of government: the governor’s mansion, the state House or the Senate.

Although Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is running strong at the top of the ticket, fueled by a near-unprecedented surge in campaign contributions, Florida Democrats still appear to be a long way from posing a real challenge to Republican dominance. Top Democrats, strapped for cash, are targeting just two seats for pickups, not the three that would allow them to hold half the 40 seats in the upper chamber so they can share power.

Democrats down ballot face financial headwinds typical for any party that’s been marginalized for so long. But the party also has made unforced errors in organizing, messaging and, some say, strategy. Those missteps could shut them out of power once again, forcing them on the sidelines when the state redraws district lines for Congress and the Legislature for the next 10 years.

“It’s really unfortunate that we don’t have more resources to engage in more races,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, who’s in charge of the party’s Senate efforts. “Florida would be so much better off if we had some balance.”

Missing out

If Democrat Kathy Lewis somehow wins her Tampa Bay-area Senate District race, she could be the candidate who tips the balance of power in Florida. When asked whether she thinks Democrats are trying hard to flip the Senate this cycle she said, “no.”

“If they were, I think they would be more interested in a third seat,” said Lewis, who is running for the open Senate district that covers parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties. Lewis ran for the seat in 2018 as well, was badly out spent, and lost by seven points. “If we can get to 20 (seats), we should try now. Not later.”

Lewis became the Democratic candidate for the seat earlier this summer after the state party tried and failed to recruit former Chief Financial Officer and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink to run. She’s up against former Republican state Rep. Danny Burgess in the general election.

Another candidate, south Florida’s Corinna Balderramos Robinson, said she also hasn’t had much financial support from the party. She’s running for a Senate district that covers St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach Counties and was won by President Donald Trump by 12 points in 2016. The incumbent Republican, Gayle Harrell, won it by about nine points in 2018.

Ramos said she understands why the party is not pouring money into her race. But she also described the party as failing to do basic outreach.

“I can’t get Senator Gary Farmer to call me back, or even email me back,” Balderramos Robinson said earlier this month.

Odds stacked against the Democrats

Of the 11 seats on the ballot this year that are currently held by Republicans, just three were decided by fewer than 10 points in their last election.

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Some experts say the best strategy for Democrats is to invest heavily in the seats they’re most likely to win — even if that means not trying to flip the Senate. It’s the favored strategy among Democrats, and why they have chosen to invest heavily only in two potential pickups: districts 9 and 39.

“The gap between getting two gains and a three gain is really large,” said Matthew Isbell, a political consultant for Democrats. “If they try to expand the map, they could risk not picking up anything.”

District 9, in the central Florida swing region of Volusia and Seminole counties, pits Republican former state Rep. Jason Brodeur against employment attorney Patricia Sigman, a Democrat. District 39, once held by a moderate Republican, covers Monroe and parts of Miami-Dade Counties. That race features former state representative Javier Fernandez, a Democrat, and current state representative Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Republican.

Complicating matters further for Democrats, Republicans are dominating fundraising. That’s forced Democrats to shell out money defending seats that should be safe in a competitive election year: District 3 surrounding Tallahassee, and District 37 in densely populated east Miami-Dade.

Democratic operative Steve Schale ran the House Democratic Caucus' political operation ahead of the 2006 elections, when Democrats picked up five seats in the Florida House. Even during a successful cycle, he said, not everybody was pleased.

“The morning after the big win, my inbox was almost entirely hate email,” he said. “Everybody who you didn’t help who lost thinks the reason why they lost is because...the caucus didn’t help,” he said.

But some say the party isn’t thinking big enough.

Dwight Bullard, political director at voting rights group New Florida Majority and a former state senator, says the Democratic party spends too much time “sitting in rooms and running analytics and data points to see what seat is strategically optimal instead of saying, ‘we are going to go ahead and shock the world.’”

What’s at stake

If Democrats can cross the 20-seat threshold and gain real power in Tallahassee, they could influence the drawing of new state House, Senate and congressional district lines that will happen over the next two years.

Although the Florida Constitution prohibits drawing maps “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent,” the 2012 Florida Legislature did just that the last time new districts were drawn, creating Senate and congressional maps that favored GOP incumbents.

Starting in 2012, the congressional and Senate maps were challenged in Second Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County by the League of Women Voters. In December 2015, judges ordered new congressional and state Senate plans. State House districts remained as drawn.

Census projections also show that Florida is likely to gain one or two additional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives after 2020.

“In the Senate, getting as close to 20 is important heading into a redistricting year,” said Miami-based Democratic strategist and consultant Christian Ulvert.

‘Something that resonates’

Earlier this year, the Florida Democratic Party had to explain why it applied for a $780,000 loan from the federal government. The loan was part of the $525 billion federal Paycheck Protection Program, which was meant to help small businesses keep employees on the payroll during the recession caused by coronavirus-related business closures. (The Tampa Bay Times and its related companies also received an $8.5 million loan under this program.) The party immediately drew criticism and Florida Democratic Party leaders said they will return it.

Republicans have already used the loan as fodder for attack mailers in at least three Senate seats: District 3, 9 and 39.

Democrats have yet to release paperwork that would explain how or why the loan was sought. In July, the party said in a statement the money would have been used to shore up payroll and keep staff employed.

But the entity that applied for the loan, the Florida Democratic Party Building Fund, is not the party itself. In the paperwork, the party claimed the fund had 100 employees. It’s unclear where the party got that figure. And in the same statement that Democrats said they would return the money, the party blamed the loan’s approval on its bank and the federal government.

“The (Paycheck Protection Program) scandal is really killing the Democrats. It’s something that resonates,” said Tampa-area consultant Barry Edwards, who works for St. Petersburg Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson. “If the Florida Democratic Party released the application, it would be a one-story story. It would end the constant cuts and the constant bleeding.”

Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party whose name was listed as executive director on the building fund, declined to comment.

Money, money, money

Across Florida in 2020, Senate Democratic candidates are getting out played in the pursuit of campaign cash by their Republican counterpart. The margin is about seven-to-one.

It’s easy to see where Florida’s biggest powers are placing their bets. Disney has given $215,000 directly to the Republican Senate effort. It gave $0 in direct contributions to the Democrats' Senate Victory.

Many corporations that give to both parties give way more to Republicans. U.S. Sugar, a powerful sugar company donated $485,000 directly to the Republican Senate committee; it gave just $25,000 directly to the Democratic committee.

Direct donations to campaigns for the Florida Legislature are limited to $1,000, but donations to PACs allow for big-dollar contributions and spending. Thanks to Republican-led legislation in 2013, the amount of money a company or individual can donate to a lawmaker’s PAC is limitless.

“Institutional donors only tend to care about their particular interest,” Edwards, the political consultant said. “The most important thing that institutional donors want is somebody that’s going to win.”

And for the last 20 years that has been Republicans. Ulvert said when it comes to fundraising on Democratic tickets, especially in down ballot races, donors want to see viable candidates.

“Sometimes you don’t see the excitement that donors look for unless it’s matched with something else,” Ulvert said. “When you have a big map competing with presidential or gubernatorial races, the down ballot races often suffer.”

But it’s not just flashy races like the presidential race that are getting showered with cash this cycle: Last week, celebrities like Seinfeld stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander planned to raise money for the effort to flip the Texas House of Representatives.

And even in Florida, there appears to be disagreement about which legislative chamber provides the most tempting target for Democrats. One notable national group, Forward Majority, this week poured almost $12 million into the effort to flip the House — not the Senate.

Their reasoning was simple, communications director Ben Wexler-Waite said: Although Democrats would need to pick up 14 seats in the House, that appears more doable than netting three senate seats.

“I don’t want to say that it’s not possible,” Wexler-Waite said. “But we saw a stronger path to flipping the House.”