Democrats agree that a good showing in Florida this November is a top priority if the party wants to reassert its power and combat the Republican party under Donald Trump.
They just aren't quite on the same page about the path: Does it run near the center or farther to the left?
The pull-and-tug in Florida's minority party was subtle Saturday as party leaders met in Hollywood for their annual leadership conference. Despite optimism following a spate of victories in competitive special elections – and an urgency to defend moderate Senator Bill Nelson against Gov. Rick Scott – friction exists about how to take back the governor's mansion and emerge from years of impotence in a bellwether state.
"It's been 20 years — 20 years — since Democrats have won the governor's race in the state of Florida," Andrew Gillum, the only African American in the governor's face, told the party's Black Caucus Saturday afternoon in a ballroom at the Diplomat Beach Resort. "These last two races for governor we have lost by less than 1 percent of the vote. Many of those votes are right there in our communities. Many of those voters feel talked past, ignored, uninspired."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
How to inspire them?
Democrats have seen outpourings at the ballot box following Trump’s election in 2016, when Florida Democrats were disappointed in their showing in the state. Last week, 28-year-old Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress in a New York U.S. House race, setting off some soul-searching about the state of the party.
“We continue to nominate squishy Democrats and give voters a Republican-lite alternative" in Florida, said Carlos GuillermoSmith, one of the members of the state's Progressive Caucus and an Andrew Gillum supporter. "That just hasn't worked. And what we're seeing across the country is that progressive leaders and progressive candidates have worked."
One of Ocasio-Cortez’s chief platform stances – abolishing U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – was on display in Miami Saturday during a rally against the separation of immigrant families. But the position is still held by a minority of the party. And depending on which Democrat you talk to, Ocasio’s victory was either a sign that Democratic voters are inspired by policies that lean farther to the left or a sign that U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley got complacent and took his seat for granted.
"It says a lot about the mood in that district," former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, a Clintonite and leading candidate to flip a Republican congressional seat in Miami, said Friday in Miami.
The push to move the party away from some corporate money and toward populist positions has encountered some resistance. The Democrats running for governor, for instance, have all sworn off money from Big Sugar, but the party named U.S. Sugar Saturday as a sponsor for its gala.
With five Democrats running for governor, including Gillum, Gwen Graham, Jeff Greene, Chris King and Philip Levine, there’s also a debate about whether to back the candidate who goes farthest to the left or the one most likely to appeal to the more conservative voters in north Florida. The race has divided the state’s booster community, and already led to some punchy debates and a negative campaign waged against Graham by some of Gillum’s supporters.
“We need to make sure as Democrats we don’t put ourselves in a circular firing squad,” Levine pleaded Saturday.
But everybody in Hollywood Saturday night was on the same page about the importance that Democrats fare better in 2016 than in 2018. Trump and Scott hung over the room like specters. Nelson, a key note speaker, reminded the audience that the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court is in the wind while hundreds of immigrant children remain separated from their parents.
“Just look at the last ten days, what’s happened,” he said. ““Why there is so much energy in this room tonight, is that you know what’s at stake.”