Perspective: Florida Democrats plot a road to relevance

Published July 3, 2015

The rallying cry was familiar at Democrat Eric Lynn's congressional campaign kickoff last month in St. Petersburg. Florida Democrats don't win elections with their wallets, said Pinellas party chair Susan McGrath. "We win elections on the ground."

When Democrats have succeeded in Florida, they have relied on grassroots organizing. It was a cornerstone of the twice-successful Barack Obama election machine, and party officials see it as the best way to counter deep-pocketed Republican opponents.

But grassroots organizers need a cause to champion and a solid candidate to back. And for most of the past two decades, the Democrats have had neither, the losing campaign trail littered with unfocused messages and uninspiring candidates.

In November 2014, despite holding a voter registration advantage of 400,000 over Republicans, Democrats sank to new lows. They lost six seats in the Florida House and failed to unseat Republican incumbent Rick Scott, one of the nation's most unpopular governors.

In June, state Democrats released a task force report to try to account for the shellacking, doubling down on the importance of grassroots efforts.

"Those who volunteer to knock on doors or make phone calls to spread the word about Democratic candidates are the heart and soul of our party," reads the report of the committee co-chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson and retired Orlando police Chief Val Demings.

Also central to the party's success: turning out voters. But in 2014, just 6 million people voted in the race for governor, a decline of 2.5 million from the Obama-driven 2012 turnout.

That lack of turnout shows how the state party's grassroots campaign efforts are failing. Scott lost the Hispanic vote in 2014 by the same margin as Mitt Romney in 2012, but that Democratic-leaning demographic composed just 13 percent of the vote in the governor's race, compared to 17 percent in the presidential race. Overwhelmingly Democratic African-Americans held firm as a percentage of state voters in 2014, but declined in number from 2012. Meanwhile, the white percentage of the vote, a Republican-leaning demographic, rose from 67 percent to 69 percent. In an election decided by 64,000 votes, every advantage mattered.

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Certainly there are a number of factors leading to the Democrats' inability to inspire and turn out core constituencies.

Candidates are a factor. Even if one were to attribute the party's 2010 and 2014 failures to unfavorable national political environments, years of failure have left the state bereft of exciting Democratic newcomers with statewide name recognition.

The Republicans are poised to run a number of such candidates in 2016, when Marco Rubio's Senate seat will be vacated, and 2018, when Scott's term runs out. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and even Rubio (if his presidential bid is unsuccessful) have all been floated as potential statewide candidates. They all also have statewide wins on their resumes.

Who is the Democrats' Rubio?

Money is another factor. State special interests have little reason to support the politically weak Democrats, leaving candidates outspent by absurd margins in seemingly every important election.

Since losing the governorship in 1998, Democrats haven't controlled either legislative house or the Governor's Mansion. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state House 81-39 and in the state Senate 26-14. The last time a Democrat not named Bill Nelson won a statewide election was when Alex Sink was elected chief financial officer in 2006.

The state's districts favor Republicans so heavily that it's hard to imagine a time in the foreseeable future in which Democrats will again rule the Senate or House. "It didn't take months to get into the current state of affairs," said Alan Clendenin, vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party. "And it's not going to take months to get out of it."

All things being equal — and they're not — Republicans as the repeat winners have a far easier time raising money. But money woes and weak candidates are just symptoms of a larger problem. Democrats have been unable to motivate their core because they have failed to do what Republicans have done in Florida since the Reagan years: Communicate their message to the people of the state.

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With the new LEAD (Leadership Expansion to Advance Democrats) task force, Democrats are trying to take the first step toward relevance. The June report was compiled after "candid" conversations between dedicated party members and task force officials attempting to diagnose the 2014 failure.

For Brook Hines, the communications chair for the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, those meetings were a microcosm of the party's problems. According to Hines, who attended at least one task force meeting, the caucus-style get-togethers separated participants into identity groups, so the Hispanic caucus met separately from the African-American caucus.

"Although things never did get overly divisive, it felt like the mood coming down from the state party level needlessly — and likely unintentionally — framed the discussion in terms of competition for resources," Hines wrote in an email. Democrats style themselves a big tent party, and they appear to be paying for the square footage. They must campaign to a slew of disparate advocacy groups — environmentalists, champions of LGBT rights and union members, to name a few.

All that advocacy can leave voters confused. "I'm not sure the Democratic Party in Florida has annunciated a very clear message about what it would mean to the average Floridian to vote for them," GOP lobbyist Mac Stipanovich said.

The Republican Party faces a similar challenge, often forced to balance somewhat tenuously its business backing with its fiercely socially conservative base. But the average Florida voter knows what it "means to vote Republican" because the party brand has been emphasized by every GOP candidate since the Reagan years.

Lower taxes. Smaller government. More freedom.

"I think we have to come up with our own three-point simple message of what it means if you vote for the Democrats," Sink said.

The task force report discusses the need to refine the Democrats' message for the middle class especially. This makes sense given the 2014 governor's race, in which Charlie Crist was shellacked in North Florida by Scott. The Democrats lost the area, dominated by middle class rural and ex-urbanites, by an astounding quarter-million votes.

Yes, Scott's campaign made massive media buys in the weeks leading up to the election. But talk to high-ranking Democratic Party officials and they will tell you what candidates should be saying to the median-income American.

"Our message really is, 'We're looking out for you. We're the one who has your back,' " Democratic former state Sen. Dan Gelber said.

Admittedly, it's not easy for any party or candidate to reach out to all of Florida's ever-changing voting population. Not even the Republicans dominate 100 percent of Florida: Democrats have carved out local wins in urban areas like Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. "We have lots of transitional communities," Gelber said. "It's not a state with the same heartbeat."

So why has the GOP outmarketed Democrats so consistently for the past two decades? Clendenin, the Florida Democrats' vice chair, said it's because Republicans have gotten their constituents to vote with their hearts.

"Our brand is sound," Clendenin said. "Our problem is being able to boil it down into something people can buy into in a guttural way."

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Which brings us back to Eric Lynn.

At his campaign launch at the St. Petersburg Veterans of Foreign Wars office, the former Pentagon official stressed all of the things one might expect out of a Democrat running for national office: cleaning up the environment, maintaining Social Security benefits, support for LGBT rights and a woman's right to choose. He also underscored the importance of national security and economic prosperity.

But did he evoke a gut reaction?

Lynn's robotic delivery of a fairly unfocused speech made for a less than inspiring campaign launch. His audience was largely composed of local Democratic club members, the very grassroots he and the party say is so important. Yet he made little effort in his speech to mobilize the on-the-ground forces he will need to upset incumbent Republican Rep. David Jolly in Congressional District 13, who himself beat Sink to take the open seat in a special election after the death of long-time congressman C.W. Bill Young.

Lynn's fundraising looks promising early and he's fortunate to not be running in an off-year election. He will get a boost from the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, just as state Democrats did in 2012. But Democrats have seen vanilla candidates battle well-funded incumbents before, and the results haven't been good.

The Florida Democratic Party has a "chicken or egg" question on its hands: Will a candidate streamline the party's message, like Reagan did with the Republicans in the 1980s, or will the party unite around a message, producing more exciting, relatable candidates? Either way, if Democrats want to control Florida, they have to make voters believe again.

"Our measure of success is when everyone succeeds," said Hines, the communications chair for the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida. "When Democrats put forth candidates who can't convincingly convey this message, we lose. And rightfully so."

Contact Kirby Wilson at Follow @kirbywilson88.