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How Florida, the nation’s biggest swing state, turned deep red

Just 537 Florida votes separated the two men running for president in 2000. A lot has changed since.
TJ Goodall of Tampa holds up a sign supporting Donald Trump during the Ron DeSantis election night party at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022 in Tampa.
TJ Goodall of Tampa holds up a sign supporting Donald Trump during the Ron DeSantis election night party at the Tampa Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2022|Updated Nov. 10, 2022

About a week before what turned out to be an electoral catastrophe for Democrats in Florida, two state senators took a bus trip to save what was left of their party.

Jason Pizzo and Lauren Book were being realistic. They aimed to retain two vulnerable colleagues, while hoping to flip a Miami-area seat. They weren’t trying to turn the Republican-led Senate blue. Democrats could only hope to avoid complete irrelevance by winning these three Senate seats.

With no signs of a promised multi-million-dollar voter registration push by their party, they tried to beef up registration in targeted areas. Pizzo, of Miami, pledged at least $500,000 from his own campaign coffers to help other Democrats.

“If all of these races end up as a tie, we won, because we did so with one-quarter of the money, no state help, no local help, no national help,” Pizzo said last week from the bus as it passed through central Florida.

Yet Tuesday night was much worse for Florida Democrats than even some of the most optimistic Republicans had predicted. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio vanquished their opponents by double digits. DeSantis-backed school board candidates won numerous races down the ballot. Republicans seized super-majorities in both legislative chambers. All three of the state Senate candidates that Pizzo and Book tried to help lost by at least six points.

Florida has long been the country’s preeminent swing state — a diverse, purple microcosm of America where 537 votes famously separated George W. Bush from Al Gore in 2000. Its past three governors races had all been decided by about one percentage point or less. Yet while nationally Democrats staved off the red wave that had been foretold for Tuesday, Florida stood as an outlier, looking like one of the most conservative states in the nation. Gone were the razor-thin margins that made it such a battleground.

It’s a transformation that’s been underway for years. This week’s midterm results signaled perhaps the official end of Florida’s status as a purple state.

More than a week before Election Day, infighting among top Democrats had spilled into public view, with some of the candidates for key positions openly questioning the state party.

“They pull resources from us, and it makes it very, very difficult for us to be successful,” said Book, D-Plantation, who’s in charge of electing Senate Democrats. She was talking about the Florida Democratic Party.

“At the rate Florida is going, a (no-party-affiliated) candidate for governor may have a better shot than a Democrat in 2026,” Democratic strategist Kevin Cate tweeted Tuesday before polls closed. “It’s that bad. Complete collapse.”

One Democratic U.S. House candidate, Alan Cohn, reportedly abandoned ship, sending an Election Day text message to voters of him standing next to former President Donald Trump. “VOTE ALAN COHN. Make America Great Again.”

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Democrats haven’t controlled the governor’s mansion or either chamber of the Legislature since 1999. But 2022 marked a new low, characterized by a startling mix of incompetence and national indifference. After this election, no Democrat will hold statewide office for the first time since the late 1800s.

“Turnout for Democrats was super low, and the Florida Democratic Party had no unifying message. They gave up on voter registration,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, one of the party’s most outspoken, progressive members who lost a close reelection race for his Orlando-area district. “The national Democratic Party abandoned our state as far as funding and resources.”

In February, the state party announced a $2.5 million effort to close its voter registration gap with Republicans, promising “six-figure registration numbers by October.”

Democrats delivered on the six-figure promise — in the wrong direction. The party lost about 114,000 registered voters from the end of 2021 to October. During that time, Republicans widened their registration edge from 43,000 to nearly 293,000 more by Election Day.

Related: Florida Republicans cut further into Democratic support among Hispanics
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Gulf Harbors Civic Association (Precinct #33) at 4610 Floramar Terrace on Tuesday, Nov 8, 2022, in New Port Richey.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Gulf Harbors Civic Association (Precinct #33) at 4610 Floramar Terrace on Tuesday, Nov 8, 2022, in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Florida Democratic Party also announced in May that it would spend $15 million on a push called “Blue Shift” to mobilize voters and unify the party so Democrats “can compete and win in Florida in 2022 and beyond.”

The leader of the Florida Democratic Party, Manny Diaz, sent an email blast to county party groups on Election Day encouraging them not to give up, but also preemptively noting that they faced uphill climbs. The email contained statistics, for example, estimating that national Democratic groups spent $58 million in the state in 2018, but about $1.4 million in 2022.

A supporter wears a pin showing support for Gov. Ron DeSantis during a campaign event at ATMAX Equipment on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Tampa.
A supporter wears a pin showing support for Gov. Ron DeSantis during a campaign event at ATMAX Equipment on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Democrats were outgunned like never before when it came to campaign fundraising.

In 2018, the Democratic Governors Association contributed $7.5 million to a political committee supporting Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor that year.

That committee essentially wrote off the Sunshine State in 2022. Aside from a $50,000 check it wrote to the Florida Democratic Party in October, it contributed nothing to Crist.

By comparison, the Republican Governors Association gave DeSantis nearly $21 million.

Related: DeSantis committees have raised over $100M. A national GOP group is giving him more.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who won a third term in office Tuesday, said Republicans won in large part because they were able to raise huge sums of money from corporations heavily invested in the status quo.

“It’s ironic that some of my Republican colleagues are referencing the red wave,” Eskamani said. “No, y’all just have a lot of money.”

But for all Democrats’ failures to raise money, there are signs the Republicans’ victory hint at deeper problems. DeSantis won two big, historically blue counties: Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, suggesting he convinced a large share of No Party Affiliated — and even some Democrats — to support him.

In Palm Beach in particular, there are roughly 100,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. DeSantis still won nearly 16,000 more votes than Crist.

Turnout data reveal that Democrats went to the polls at much lower rates than did Republicans, hinting at an enthusiasm gap between the parties.

Related: Republicans dominated Florida elections. What happened to Democrats?

Democrats had hoped to capitalize on voters’ worries about rising costs and on Republican policies to curtail abortion. But Republicans looked to be on the winning side of the issues that mattered most to voters who showed up.

“Their platform is based on so many negative issues,” said Christian Ziegler, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “People are concerned with inflation, with the breakdown of the family ... and you have the Democratic Party pushing gender stuff on kids.”

With Republicans emboldened, political experts expect DeSantis to keep pushing conservative culture war issues such as banning or limiting transgender health care. (These moves by the DeSantis administration have been contrary to the policies of several major health organizations. In July, a panel of academics from Yale wrote that a DeSantis administration report on transgender health care was politically motivated.)

Related: What Florida could expect from Ron DeSantis’ second term

As Democrats pick up the pieces of a bitter round of defeats, it’s unclear where they go from here. The party has no standard bearer. Diaz, the party’s chairperson, has been facing calls to resign since late October.

Observers note that the Democrats’ problems may coalesce into a death spiral. Dramatic losses make future candidates less prone to run. Lesser-quality candidates make it harder to raise money. With less money, bigger election losses become more common. With the new electoral maps drawn by DeSantis’ office heavily favoring Republicans, the future only gets tougher for Democrats.

Poll deputy Jon Kueny, left, visits with voter Brad Gustafson, center, and Kathy Gustafson, right, moments after the couple cast their ballots at Precinct #33 moments after is opened at the Gulf Harbors Civic Association at 4610 Floramar Terrace on Tuesday, Nov 8, 2022, in New Port Richey.
Poll deputy Jon Kueny, left, visits with voter Brad Gustafson, center, and Kathy Gustafson, right, moments after the couple cast their ballots at Precinct #33 moments after is opened at the Gulf Harbors Civic Association at 4610 Floramar Terrace on Tuesday, Nov 8, 2022, in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

But some Democrats say there are reasons for optimism. State Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa, the incoming leader of the Florida House Democrats, said that no matter the results, she still had faith that the state remained purple. Her party needs to focus on combating misinformation among the Latino community, she said, to continue building “coalitions in a stronger way.”

“This, to me, is not the election cycle to judge the trajectory of the state for the next 10 years on,” Driskell said. “We’ve had tough days. This is a particularly difficult cycle where there’s a lot of headwinds coming at us that are out of our control. But you’ve always got to be ready for the next cycle.”

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