Florida Democrats gathered near the Magic Kingdom last month to spitball strategies for reenergizing the party in advance of statewide elections in November. Over three days huddling inside an Orlando hotel, party leaders came to a conclusion: Democrats have a messaging problem.
Any state party that’s coiled into retreat for two decades obviously has a messaging problem. The Democrats’ takeaway was not only dated, but superficial, self-atoning and self-defeating. Democrats haven’t occupied the governor’s office since Buddy MacKay served the final weeks of Lawton Chiles’ second term, ushering in Jeb Bush in January, 1999. Democrats hold only one statewide office. And they have lost down-ballot races even as the issues the party champions — civil rights, the environment, increasing the minimum wage — have proved popular among Florida voters.
If Democrats think their problem is only messaging, the hurdles they face this election year are higher than they imagine. The party has taken its core constituencies for granted. It has seemed incapable of unifying or appearing competent enough to govern. And it has been tone-deaf or AWOL on its historic priorities, from public education to open government. Consider these unforced errors in the last two years alone:
- The Democratic Party’s financial situation became so severe that it blinded officials into a series of fatal judgments. In spring 2020, the party applied for and received at least $780,000 through the Paycheck Protection Program, part of a larger stimulus package Congress created that year to help offset the nation’s economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic. While the party eventually returned the forgivable loan, Republicans hammered Democratic legislative candidates on the issue in the 2020 elections; at least one target, state Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, lost her seat. At about the same time, the cash-strapped party allowed health insurance for its employees to lapse, leaving many staffers unknowingly without coverage. While the policy was reinstated, it was a picture of hypocrisy and incompetence for a party that championed expanded health coverage to Americans.
- Last April, just three days before the end of the annual legislative session, Democratic senators voted to replace their leader in a rare late-session revolt. Democrats unanimously took a vote of no confidence in Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, a Lighthouse Point lawyer, and Sen. Lauren Book, a children’s advocate from Plantation, was chosen as his replacement. The intra-party conflict was the result of long-simmering frustration with Farmer, who failed to unite his caucus on several bills. One Democratic senator suggested that Farmer had leaked to reporters the names of colleagues he thought might side with a key Republican vote, which Farmer denied. But if Democrats were worried about projecting party unity, how could an internal coup in the waning hours of session help them politically? If a party cannot manage its own caucus, how can it govern a divided electorate? This was more student government than state government.
- Democrats lack the votes to set the agenda in Tallahassee, but often can keep bad legislation from becoming worse. But that didn’t happen during the special session that Gov. Ron DeSantis called in November to bar COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Democrats refused to provide a united front to stop a new public records exemption from becoming law. The measure conceals from public view state investigations of companies suspected of imposing vaccine mandates. Democrats in the Senate had the numbers to stop the bill, which squeaked by with the necessary 26 votes, after two Democrats (including Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg) voted with Republicans in support, with four other Democratic senators not voting at all. House Democrats also declined to take a caucus position against the public records exemption, and the measure passed in that chamber with eight Democratic votes, including from Rep. Andrew Learned of Brandon.
Democrats want to use 2022, with five statewide races on the ballot, including governor and U.S. Senate, to reverse a long-running streak of disastrous elections. But returning to relevance won’t be easy. Democrats enter the 2022 election cycle bruised and on the decline. A decade ago, nearly 560,000 more Florida voters registered as Democrats than Republicans, a five point margin. By December, Florida Republicans (5.1 million) had outnumbered registered Democrats (5 million) for the first time in state history. And Republicans had not only momentum, but fuller coffers, a sharper agenda and stronger messaging.
This, of course, is bad news for Democrats but also for Florida’s democracy. A state government without the checks of a multiparty system is a recipe for authoritarian abuse. No wonder Florida Republicans have rolled over Democrats on everything from new voting restrictions to state preemption to COVID-19.
If Democrats want a shot in 2022, they need to start with the basics and show a better understanding of what voters want.
Stand for something. Outnumbered in the Legislature, Democrats for years have fashioned themselves as a counter to Republican excess. But where’s the proof of that? Aside from some isolated victories, Democrats haven’t shaved off much from the Republican agenda, much less bent the partisan arc toward the middle. Republicans have put Democrats on the defensive over public schools, coopted their hold over environmental issues, and all but smothered any debate over tax policy. Democrats have failed to define an alternate vision for Florida, settling instead as conscientious objectors. And many Democratic lawmakers hold their powder to curry Republican favor for parochial issues.
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Work in unison. Democrats have long said the party’s diversity is it’s strength, which is true. Except when it’s not. Demographic diversity is far different from diversity of effort and a general lack of discipline that has at times made the state party a laughingstock. For better or worse, Republicans are ruthless and unapologetic about keeping the caucus in line; Democrats could learn a lesson in (yes) messaging, but also in building a common vision for the state and in nurturing a bench of candidates ready to stand for termed-limited legislative office. It says something that many Democratic mayors and county commissioners see no future in pursuing state office. The party needs stronger communication and support across all levels of government.
Know the voter. Democrats are only now waking up to the risks of not fully appreciating their traditional constituencies, having treated Hispanics as a monolith for so long while ignoring the nuanced interests of Black voters. Cesar Ramirez, the president of the Hispanic Caucus within the party, told the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau that Joe Biden’s lackluster performance against then-President Donald Trump among Hispanics in Miami-Dade has jolted Democrats to become more sensitized to the varied interests of Hispanic groups. Many Black, urban voters are also more conservative on a range of social issues than their white, progressive counterparts, notably on school choice. Democrats need to spend more time listening to voters between elections.
Democrats left the party’s annual Leadership Blue conference last month thinking they’d cleared their heads. It didn’t help that nearly the entire Senate Democratic caucus skipped the meeting to hold a fundraiser in Las Vegas. Officials blamed a scheduling conflict, but the no-show was another example of the party’s left hand not knowing what the right was doing. Senate Democrats did offer a strong response to DeSantis’ “State of the State” address opening the Legislature this month, in a lively, sharply-produced video that called for safer streets, cleaner waterways and better access to housing and health care. (But they can’t even get that right. The online link to the video hasn’t worked for days.)
The trick for Democrats is to become as popular as their policies and effective enough to champion them. Yes that requires better messaging — but also a smarter brand of politics that speaks to the times.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.