A mere two years ago, the Democratic Party won Florida for its presidential nominee and held one of the U.S. Senate seats. The party seemingly had a rapidly growing Hispanic electorate inexorably moving in its direction, competent local and state leadership and numerous energetic outside groups promoting Democratic candidates and values. With a vulnerable governor holding office, the sky was the limit.
On Wednesday, Democrats around Florida woke up to a vast wasteland of defeat. Gov. Rick Scott was re-elected, and his party controlled two-thirds of the state House of Representatives. With eyes clearly fixed on the Governor’s Mansion, how did we lose?
Things looked promising enough at the start. Manny Diaz, the visionary former mayor of Miami and a formidable fund-raiser, briefly considered running for governor. Democrats frantically tried to recruit U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who took too long to decline, keeping other candidates from considering the race.
Sen. Nan Rich, a highly accomplished liberal Democrat, actually ran, but never gained traction among serious Democratic donors.
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In the meantime, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist became a Democrat with an eye on running once again for governor, after failing in 2012 to become a U.S. senator, as an independent. Influential Democratic opinion makers and donors flocked to Crist, believing his name recognition and gifted campaigning skills, along with being from the I-4 corridor would make him a sure-fire winner — as if geography matters more than authenticity. But I-4 Democratic gubernatorial candidates lost in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
Omar Kahn, the well-respected campaign manager of the Crist campaign, blamed Crist’s loss on the $13 million that Rick Scott poured into the race during the last week of the campaign. I say, nonsense. By then voters were justifiably disgusted with the tone of both campaigns and tuned out all political ads.
For 10 years, I was an adjunct political science professor at the University of MIami. I told my students that I believe voters act sociotrophically. That is, they make an intuitive decision based solely on whom they believe will be the best leader. Organization matters, money matters, but most of all a candidate’s connection to the voter decides elections.
So what would I tell my students in 2014, if I were still teaching?
By nominating Crist, the party advanced to the voters a candidate who belonged to the Democratic Party not has his first party of choice, not as his second choice but his third party of choice! Is it any wonder Democratic voters in South Florida stayed home in droves?
In fact, Crist came remarkably close, but it is mistaken to think the voters don’t understand the nominee had no history with the party and its policies. Moreover, Crist’s campaign never gave us a clear picture of the policies he would advance as governor. Every time Democrats run as a Republican lite, they lose.
It did not help Crist that 2014 became a Republican wave year nationally. Unfortunately, to the average voter, President Obama appears tired and disengaged. The Democratic Party couldn’t run away from him fast enough. However, I believe history will be kinder to Obama.
As a former legislator and now a lobbyist, I work with Republicans all the time and value my many friendships in their party. I will give them this: They are in your face with their policies and philosophy.
They have an ideology and they don’t run from it. Honestly, I am envious of it and believe it’s our obligation as Democrats to advocate our values and positions forcefully.
Still, Democrats have reason to be hopeful. When I was elected to the state Legislature in 1982, we, too, had a super majority of the Florida House. Each succeeding cycle we lost seats because one-party control inevitably leads to flawed public policy. Democrats such as Congresswoman-elect Gwen Graham and Congressman Patrick Murphy are enormously talented and survived the Republican onslaught. Democratic mayors Bob Buckhorn of Tampa and Buddy Dyer of Orlando are well respected public officials.. They all need to invest some of their political capital into helping party leaders rebuild its infrastructure.
For Democrats to seize the day, we must remind voters that Republicans have controlled public policy in Florida since 1998 and make them own it. But to do that, we have to recruit candidates who offer a vision and are not just characters. We need to rally around candidates based on their ability to present and advance a genuine Democratic agenda.
Only then will South Florida Democrats turn out and vote in sufficient numbers for us to win.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.