What happened to Florida Democrats?

Published March 4, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — The state of Democratic politics in Florida is so incongruous it borders on surreal.

On any given week, thousands of Barack Obama volunteers in every corner of America's biggest battleground state are working phone banks, attending training sessions and reaching out to deliver Florida's 29 electoral votes to the president. In Tampa, Mitt Romney's Florida campaign headquarters is shuttered.

But step inside Florida's Capitol, where the levers of power are housed to shape statewide policies. There, Democrats are more invisible and irrelevant than ever: Not a single statewide office-holder and such small minorities in both chambers that Democrats can't even use procedural moves to slow the Republican agenda.

"It can be very frustrating, it can be depressing, and it certainly is very challenging," said state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg.

How far has the Democratic Party fallen in Florida?

So far that it's hard to name strong prospects to challenge Gov. Rick Scott, the country's most unpopular governor, in 2014.

And when you ask veteran Florida political observers to name the state's most influential Democrats, they're apt to mention Bob Graham, who is 75 and has been out of office for seven years. Or Charlie Crist, who isn't even a Democrat but could run for governor in 2014 as a lifelong Republican-turned independent-turned-Democrat.

The lack of Democratic influence in Tallahassee is all the more striking because the state remains as much a competitive battleground as ever. In the past five presidential elections Democrats won twice, Republicans twice, and one election ended in a virtual tie.

This year, Obama appears to have an even chance of winning Florida (the average of recent Florida polls shows Obama leading Romney by less than half a percentage point), Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is well-positioned to win a third term, and Democrats won two big prizes in 2011: mayoral offices in Jacksonville and Tampa.

"In the last 20 years more people in Florida have voted for a Democrat for president than a Republican for president. But you sure wouldn't know that looking at Tallahassee," said Florida Democratic chairman Rod Smith, a centrist former state senator whose Gainesville-area district is now represented by a Republican.

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Even with a nearly 500,000-voter registration advantage, Florida Democrats have hit rock bottom, and the path back to relevance looks anything but swift.

"The long-term demographics of Florida if you're a Democrat are very bright. The state's getting younger, more diverse, more urban,'' said Democratic strategist Steve Schale of Tallahassee. "But the difference between us and other swing states is that they have long-term political infrastructure in place. The challenge continues to be building that long-term infrastructure, and I think we're going to struggle with that until we elect a governor."

The roots of the Democrats' woes go back decades. Complacent party leaders long accustomed to dominating state government focused on their own political campaigns and did little or nothing to build a bench of future leaders or a lasting political operation for groomed political newcomers to plug into. Meanwhile, the Florida GOP methodically recruited talented candidates and built a formidable, data-driven political machine.

"Ultimately Cabinet offices and the Governor's Mansion are critically important in giving us something to organize our party around long term. But we would be making a mistake if we say let's just focus all on this, because it's not that simple. You've got to build a lot of other places, too. We ought to be out there and identifying the person we think could be running for office in 2016 and 2018, 2020. That's what Tom Slade did," said Smith, referring to the former GOP chairman who ushered his state party into majority status during the early 1990s.

Redistricting in 1992 sealed the Florida Democrats' fate as a minority party in the Legislature and Congress. African-American leaders determined to see more representation teamed up with Republicans to draw new legislative and congressional maps. The result produced more African-American representatives, but also diluted Democratic strength across the state.

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Today, the Democrats in the Legislature are dominated by liberals serving in overwhelmingly Democratic South Florida districts — rather than centrists who tend to have more statewide appeal. Strong candidate recruiting helped Democrats gain ground in the Florida House in 2006, but the 2010 Republican tidal wave across the country took a heavy toll on the Democratic bench.

Not only did some of the party's brightest stars — Chief Financial Officer and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, and attorney general candidates and former state Sens. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres and Dan Gelber of Miami Beach — lose their statewide elections, but Republicans also swept into the handful of competitive districts. Moderate Democratic House members including Bill Heller and Janet Long of Pinellas County, and Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota lost their seats, most replaced by staunch conservatives.

"The way the districts were drawn really doomed us to be in the minority, but it's more than that,'' said state Rep. Kriseman. "A lot of elected Democrats, especially in this last election, did an absolutely horrible job identifying who we are, what we stand for, what we believe in and differentiating ourselves not only from the Republicans, but also from Washington."

In this 50/50 political battleground state, only 12 of 40 Florida senators are Democrats and only 38 of 120 Florida House members. (The House Democratic caucus is down one after the resignation of Rep. Richard Steinberg amid a stalking investigation.)

The pool of all-star Democrats in the Legislature who look like credible future statewide candidates is lower than ever before.

"I feel better when I'm out of Tallahassee, than when I'm in Tallahassee," said Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux, noting that the party has had some important successes in local races, most notably with Democrat Alvin Brown winning the Jacksonville mayor's race in 2011. "The easier path for us to win right now is statewide, rather than districtwide."

The list of prospective gubernatorial candidates in 2014 is dominated by Democratic mayors with little statewide name recognition: Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. Others include Sink, Crist, state Sens. Jeremy Ring of Margate and Nan Rich of Weston, former state Sen. Gelber, and party chairman Smith.

But the lack of presence in Tallahassee has created a vicious circle: Democrats struggle to get their message out, because they have such a small voice in the Capitol; special interests don't give to Democrats because they have so little influence; state government and the lobbying corps are teeming with experienced Republican political professionals, but savvy Democratic operatives often have to leave the state to make a living. Or they gravitate to the GOP.

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Florida voters in 2010 approved reforming the way legislative lines are drawn with an eye toward making more competitive and less gerrymandered districts. Democrats are optimistic they will gain seats in November, perhaps winning as many as 55 Florida House seats, but recruiting strong candidates is a challenge when nobody knows where the lines will end up after court fights.

"If we could become more relevant in the Senate and House and we could capture some statewide races, I do believe there would be a comfort zone and people returning," said Smith, referring both to voters and political talent.

Smith assumed the chairmanship after the Democrats' 2010 drubbing, and his priorities have included rebuilding morale, putting in place a strong legal team for redistricting and targeting local races.

As anemic as the state Democrats look, Smith is optimistic looking ahead. Florida remains a centrist state, he argued, and the Florida GOP has become so extreme that it's turning off mainstream voters.

"The tea party iteration of the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that we have the opportunity to identify ourselves as a broader tent and more inclusive than the Republicans," he said. "It's happening right down to county commission level, this moving so far to the right. I mean Pinellas County stopping fluoride? Are you kidding me? I thought that went out with the John Birch Society."

Practically every other year, Florida Democrats ask themselves if they can sink any lower. Then they do. The slow climb back may or may not begin in November.

"Democrats have lost confidence that we can win,'' Smith said. "What this president represents for us, and what this election represents for us is an opportunity to prove that we have found our way to win again in Florida."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at