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'Total systemic failure’: Florida Democrats suffer devastating election losses

Several Democratic candidates who spoke to the Times/Herald pointed to many of the same flaws Democrats have highlighted before. They also voiced a stream of new critiques.
From left: Rick Kriseman, Jennifer Webb, Maria Scruggs, and Rene Flowers are pictured while waiting for a campaign visit by Dr. Jill Biden at the Thomas "Jet" Jackson Recreation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
From left: Rick Kriseman, Jennifer Webb, Maria Scruggs, and Rene Flowers are pictured while waiting for a campaign visit by Dr. Jill Biden at the Thomas "Jet" Jackson Recreation Center on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Nov. 5, 2020

MIAMI — For Florida Democrats, President Donald Trump’s decisive victory in Florida and down-ballot carnage, particularly in Miami-Dade County, should not have been a surprise.

But it was.

Democrats lost five state House of Representative seats, including two in Miami-Dade, bringing the Republican balance to 78, compared to 42 Democrats. Republicans forced what appeared to be a safe Democratic state Senate seat in Miami into a recount and two Democratic incumbent congresswomen were also defeated.

"Total systemic failure. Party, caucuses, affiliated & independent groups,'' wrote Democratic state Rep. Javier Fernandez on Twitter, hours after losing a bitter and expensive contest for state Senate in Miami. “People have spoken & clearly said they don’t want what we are offering. Unforgivable part is that no one saw this coming.”

Fernandez was one of several legislative Democrats blindsided by the surprise surge in Republican support after a hard campaign in which the party’s internal polls had him consistently ahead until the final days. He lost by 13 percentage points after weeks of internal polling that showed him ahead. Only in the final days did he consider it close enough to retain legal counsel in the event of a recount, while Republicans pollster showed them securely ahead.

"The problem is not the electorate the problem is us, the party,'' said Fernandez, who lost to Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez in the District 39 race that Democrats had invested heavily and targeted to win.

In the Wednesday postmortem analysis, several Democratic candidates who spoke to the Times/Herald pointed to many of the same flaws Democrats have highlighted before. They also voiced a stream of new critiques. They pointed to the party’s failure to compete with Republicans in converting no-party-affiliated voters and new voters to Democratic registrations, especially in Miami-Dade County.

A litany of political woe

They lamented their inability to effectively counter the Republicans' Marxist “dog-whistle” messaging and anti-socialist labeling of their candidates, used by Republicans to target Hispanic voters, particularly in South Florida.

They chastised party leaders for making them vulnerable to GOP attack ads for taking — and being forced to return — a $780,000 federal Paycheck Protection Program loan created to help small businesses. They criticized inaccurate internal polls, and they blasted what they called an unrealistic donor-driven strategy aimed at trying to flip seats in the state House and Senate, rather than to preserve the Legislative gains they had made in 2018.

"It’s cheaper to keep an incumbent than to flip a seat,'' said Jennifer Webb of Gulfport, a one-term Democrat who lost the race for House District 69 representing southern Pinellas County. “There was lot of money put into flipping seats by our external partners that could have perhaps made a different in the races for our incumbents and that, paired with more nuanced targeted of our messages, could have made a difference.”

Democrats have done their share of soul searching after devastating losses before. It happened in 2010, when Charlie Crist dropped out of the governor’s race to pursue a losing bid for U.S. Senate, unleashing a series of dominoes that opened every seat on the state Cabinet and governor’s office but also led to a complete Republican takeover of state government.

Democrats watched the pattern play out again in 2014 and 2016. Only in 2018 did Democrats win back a handful of seats in the state House and end the GOP’s eight-year stranglehold on the Cabinet. Each time, they blamed a lackluster get-out-the-vote effort, particularly in the minority communities of vote-rich South Florida. They complained about weak party organization and how they were consistently outspent.

In addition to Webb, who was defeated by Republican Linda Chaney, the House, Republicans held off four aggressive Democratic challenges and increased their number by flipping four other seats: Republican Dana Trabulsy unseated Rep. Delores Hogan Johnson, D-Fort Pierce, in St. Lucie County’s House District 84; and Republican Tom Fabricio toppled Rep. Cindy Polo, D-Miramar, in House District 103 in Broward and Miami-Dade counties; Republican Fiona McFarland picked up an open seat in Sarasota County’s House District 72, and Republican Demi Busatta Cabrera did the same in Miami-Dade’s House District 114.

Webb said the inaccurate polling also led some Democratic candidates to send resources to other races when they should have used them to defend themselves while others struggled to get the resources they needed from the party.

"It was challenging to get people to invest early in my race because they thought I was going to be fine,'' she said. “I take solace in the fact it took them $2.5 million and some pretty terrible lies to beat me by five points.”

Rising voice expresses frustration

Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani, one of the Democratic Party’s liberal rising stars who was elected in 2018 and easily won re-election Tuesday, said that party leaders made a tactical error when they did not openly endorse the minimum wage amendment — which passed with more than 60 percent of the vote — because the party is dependent on corporate donors who opposed the initiative.

"If more Democrats ran with increasing the minimum wage, we would have won more seats,'' she said late Tuesday, then spelled it out on Twitter: "Democratic Party is scared to stand with working people because then the corporations that fund @FlaDems and so many candidates will get mad and stop throwing crumbs at us while they throw a LOT more at Republican Party and caucuses,'' Eskamani wrote on Twitter. “We lose, the people lose — corporations win.”

Her conclusion: “Without a doubt the Democratic Party needs to clean house. We keep using the same consultants, and none of the consultants are going to say anything because they are making money.”

On Wednesday, the Democratic Party’s House Victory committee blamed a Trump wave and a divided country for their legislative losses.

"We’re obviously disappointed with the results in statehouse races, but they track what happened here in the state Senate, Congressional and the Presidential races,'' said Joy Howell, spokesperson for the House Victory campaign. “It appears people voted Republican at the top of the ticket on down, and some of our outstanding candidates lost as a result. Floridians are obviously very divided on the vision for the state and the country.”

But Webb said it’s a mistake to blame Trump.

"When you have higher than average turnout, you have less informed voters and that is where that targeting component comes in,'' Webb said. “To say it’s just a Trump wave, that’s a failure of critical analysis if you stop there, because we should be able to look at the data and pull together a deeper understanding of what was going on.”

Trouble with turnout

Many of the closely fought legislative seats are considered “trap districts” for incumbents, whose numeric advantage is often dependent on getting low-propensity voters out to vote, something Democrats have more of than Republicans.

Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of politics at the University of Central Florida, said Republicans demonstrated they again were “better organized, raised more money and have done a better job of contacting and mobilizing voters and getting them to turnout.”

Republicans outworked them in the mechanics of government, and they refined their data analysis, said Susan MacManus, retired professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

"In the era of micro targeting they still rely on macro targeting,'' she said, noting that Gen Z and millennial voters went in opposite directions, particularly in response to the pandemic, and Republicans tapped into that.

"You can’t just rely on the polls in a state this close,''' she said. "They don’t do enough analysis of the subgroups, and they continually bring in people from outside who have no clue about the diversity of Florida voters.''

Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, a Coconut Grove Democrat, said he sees a silver lining in Tuesday’s election: the victory of more than 170 municipal Democratic candidates in Florida. Now, he said, some of his party’s soul-searching will have to involve how Democrats in nonpartisan municipal seats parlay retail, neighborhood-level politics into campaigns that overcome broad political attacks, such as accusations of socialism?

He pointed to two successful county-level candidates, incumbent Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins and mayor-elect Daniella Levine Cava, as politicians with enough of a municipal record to beat back the characterization they were radical leftists and won in what was otherwise a hostile turnout for Democrats.

“Having been in office and served their community and stood for very strong issues, they were able to transcend that label,” Russell said, citing Levine Cava’s focus on solving a water-quality problem in Biscayne Bay as a winning issue that resonated beyond party politics.

Russell started a program to assist municipal candidates in their messaging efforts after an improbable victory in his first Miami commission race — a campaign he won with little traditional political savvy and virtually no experience. He hadn’t even voted in a city race in about a decade. After getting into office, he saw a need to build a Democratic bench while recruiting new candidates for city halls seats across Florida.

Yet, it’s a delicate balance to use party resources to bolster candidates for nonpartisan seats on local boards and commissions. Bringing partisan politics into municipal halls could embitter local races and create divisions on boards that could stymie governments that are closest to the people, the leaders in charge of picking up the garbage and fixing potholes.

Among the victors Tuesday who benefited from the party’s bench-building support: Nadia Combs, who won a seat on Hillsborough County’s school board, and Jack Kelly, who’s joining the St. Lucie County school board.

“Just to be super clear, this is not about making local politics more partisan,” Russell said. “Quite the opposite, it’s about teaching the state party that building a bench and passing progressive legislation is important and possible through nonpartisan seats.”

Miami Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross contributed to this report

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