Florida Democrats lost another officeholder last week after Manny Diaz announced his retirement “effective immediately” as state party chairperson. The news wasn’t surprising given the party’s shellacking in November’s midterm elections. But Diaz’s departure reflects how far Democrats have to go to become competitive again in America’s third-largest state.
Democrats lost every statewide election in November, marking the first time since the late 1800s that Republicans hold all Florida-wide positions. What’s more, the GOP’s solid victories at the top of the ballot — Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection over Democrat Charlie Crist by 19 percentage points, while Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Democratic challenger Val Demings by almost 17 points — cemented in the national psyche that Florida had transitioned from a closely-watched “swing state” to solidly red.
In a five-page letter to Democratic leaders last Monday, Diaz was unsparing in reflecting on these losses. He said the party has “been rendered practically irrelevant to the election of Democrats” because of a lack of financial backing, too few committed volunteers, poor messaging, an inert bureaucracy and other factors.
“We cannot win elections if we continue to rely on voter registration to drive turnout, build field operations only around elections, and expect to get our vote out without engaging voters where they live,” Diaz wrote. And though he tried to address those issues as party chairperson, Diaz said he instead found obstacles within “a long-standing, systemic and deeply entrenched culture resistant to change; one where individual agendas are more important than team.”
We’ll let party insiders play the blame game. After all, Diaz, a former Miami mayor, knew what he was taking on; he ran on the belief that state Democrats needed a stronger party infrastructure and closer engagement with Florida voters. Diaz was in charge in late 2021 when Florida Republicans overtook Democrats in party registration for the first time in Florida history. As Jared Moskowitz, a newly elected Democratic member of the U.S. House from Broward County, tweeted: “I like Manny. But you can’t lose by 19 points and get to stay to talk about it.”
Florida Democrats are not the only ones invested in their relevance. The state’s democratic institutions are stronger when both major parties contribute to the public debate, minimizing the chance to marginalize minorities and adding to checks and balances to the system. On that score, Diaz’s parting memo underscored three points that Democrats must address.
Ideas. Democrats still have appealing messages. In recent years alone, Florida voters have adopted constitutional amendments to promote the environment, medical marijuana, felon voting rights and a higher minimum wage, all issues Democrats have championed. And while Republicans have made inroads by appealing to moderates on school choice, Democrats still can compete by highlighting their support for traditional public schools. As Republicans move to the right on abortion, free speech, LGBTQ rights and other issues, Democrats need to draw sharper distinctions on real-life impacts.
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Candidates. The loss for Democrats in a state that Barack Obama carried twice is both wide and deep. Aside from Republican sweeps at the top of the ticket, first-time Republican candidates ousted incumbent Democratic officeholders in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere, aided by DeSantis’ popularity, Republican campaign cash and Democratic voters’ indifference. Florida Democrats have a thin bench of fresh blood to move through the electoral ranks, and big-city Democratic mayors continue to stay home and pursue other opportunities besides higher office. That’s hardly a recipe for growth.
Organization. Florida Democrats have been in such disarray for years it will take time for Floridians to trust they have their own house in order. The Democrats’ historical constituencies in minority communities also have shown growing distrust with a party that shows up mostly at election time. Democrats need to unify their messaging. They need to push back harder at the labels (”socialist,” “anti-police”) that Republicans use to discredit them. And they need to learn from how Florida Republicans win races — build the grassroots, stay disciplined and strike at the political jugular.
There are still strong voices in Florida’s Democratic Party, and if Diaz’s memo becomes a cause for action when the party meets to vote on its new leadership this month, so much the better. The Democrats’ diminished presence has only worsened the polarization in Florida to the detriment of all its residents.
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 Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.