Gobsmacked by election, Florida Democrats try to refocus

U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson board Air Force One with President Barack Obama at Miami International Airport on Nov. 3.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson board Air Force One with President Barack Obama at Miami International Airport on Nov. 3. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Leading up to Election Day, Florida Democrats predicted the Donald Trump effect could give them big wins up and down the ticket. Even some stalwart, long-serving Republicans were in trouble, a few Democrats claimed in private, excitedly envisioning a state map awash in blue.

Instead, Tuesday’s results left bereft Democrats speaking bluntly about why so many of their candidates lost.

“We ignored the white working class,” said Monica Russo, executive vice president of the 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. “Duh: We shouldn’t do that.”

It wasn’t just that Hillary Clinton failed to take Florida, though a victory here wouldn’t have been enough to offset Trump’s remarkable gains across the Rust Belt. Florida Democrats also squandered down-ballot opportunities, missing chances to pick up state legislative districts where voters picked Clinton — and then voted for Republicans.

“The Marco Rubio effect did have an impact on down-ticket races,” said Juan Cuba, the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party’s executive director, who credited the U.S. senator’s reelection campaign with lifting fellow Republicans at the polls.

That’s an ominous sign for 2018, when no presidential candidate will be on the ballot and Florida voters will choose their next governor and U.S. senator. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has said he’s seeking reelection. A likely challenger? Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who could draw a lot of Republicans to the polls.

The 2016 reckoning for Florida Democrats began Friday, when state party Chairwoman Allison Tant told the party she’s stepping down at the end of her four-year term in January.

“I will use the remainder of my term to ensure that the next chair is able to hit the ground running on day one with as smooth of a transition as possible,” she wrote in an email, thanking members for their past support.

Through a party spokesman, Tant declined an interview request. Scott Arceneaux, the party’s executive director, said he’s still thinking about his future (“I have a life rule not to make decisions a week after an election,” he said).

Speculation about Tant’s successor began immediately. Alan Clendenin, the Tampa activist Tant defeated in 2013 and the party’s first vice-chairman, said Friday he had been “overwhelmed with calls and messages” asking him to run again.

“In the next week or two, we’ll start those conversations,” Clendenin had told the Miami Herald on Thursday, two days after he lost a bid for a Hillsborough County School Board seat. “Right now, we’re in a period of grieving and mourning.”

Other names in the mix: former Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairwoman Annette Taddeo; Susannah Randolph, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson’s former district director; state Rep. Ed Narain of Tampa, who narrowly lost a state Senate race in the August primary; Carlos Odio, the Miami-based executive director of the secretive Florida Alliance political network; Miami political consultant Christian Ulvert; former state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach; and state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, who heads the Miami-Dade party and lost his seat Tuesday.

One Democratic source floated another notable suggestion: U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who lost his U.S. Senate challenge of Rubio on Tuesday. Murphy could not be reached Friday.

Taddeo and Randolph both said they would consider it. Narain said he hadn’t heard his name mentioned. Odio laughed off the idea. Ulvert acknowledged getting approached but seemed unlikely to want the job. Gelber said Saturday he is “potentially” interested. Bullard said Friday he has been asked but told the Herald he hadn’t even made up his mind about whether to try to keep his Miami-Dade party post.

“Part of my reluctance to make that decision is the necessity of fresh ideas and fresh blood,” Bullard said. “There needs to be some sort of significant change in terms of how we run races, and our strategy. We’re tired of losing seats.”

He said Saturday he is interested in the state chairmanship.

Bullard, who backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, laid much of the blame for the party’s results on a message that didn’t speak “to some of those people that felt disaffected.”

“We could have netted some of those voters had we had a more populist message,” he said. Democrats should have centered on changes made to the party platform under pressure from Sanders’ supporters, Bullard said, talking about solutions for income inequality, systemic racism and climate change.

“People want to vote for something and not against something,” he said, before bringing up Trump. “He always circled back to ‘Make America Great Again,’ which in itself is a positive affirmation.”

Cuba, the Miami-Dade party’s executive director, will step down as of Nov. 30. Some local Democrats want him to pursue the Dade chairmanship if Bullard leaves.

Like with most things in politics, Florida’s election results were a microcosm of what happened elsewhere in the country, though demographically the state remains much different from places like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Total state turnout rose 3 percentage points from 2012, to 74 percent. But many Democrats simply stayed home. In 2012, Democrats made up 35 percent of the Florida electorate. In 2016, their share fell to 32 percent.

The loss was most acutely felt in the few Democratic spots outside of South Florida (turnout jumped by 4 points, to 72 percent, in the Miami market, which includes Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties).

In the Tallahassee media market, home to a crucial contingent of African-American voters, turnout dropped by 2 points. The Gainesville market, which also leans left, saw turnout stay flat. Turnout dropped nearly 2 percent in Hillsborough, the only county in the Tampa market to vote for Clinton, and one of the few with more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Meanwhile, in the deep-red Fort Myers media market, turnout soared to nearly 80 percent, up 7 points from 2012.

Electing Clinton by a big margin helped Miami-Dade Democrats net a single state Senate district seat, after Rep. José Javier Rodríguez defeated Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, and a single, open state House district, after Daisy Baez bested John Couriel. (Democrat Robert Asencio leads Republican David Rivera in a second open House seat that is headed to a recount.)

According to Republicans, though, Trump lost to Clinton in every GOP-held or contested congressional, state Senate and state House district in Miami-Dade — which means Clinton voters split the ticket to elect down-ballot Republicans, who generally ran better-funded campaigns.

“The bottom line is we had great candidates who have been working hard to make their communities better and they were rewarded for it,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia said in a statement to the Herald. “In addition, these candidates were bilingual and they were able to get their message of less government out in English and in Spanish.”

The problem isn’t the party brand, argued Ulvert, the Miami political consultant.

“At the end of the day, Trump won the state of Florida by similar margins that we’ve seen almost every election cycle,” he said. “I’m ready, as a Florida-based consultant, to travel a little bit and go see parts of this country that have Democratic governors in states Trump won by big margins and talk to folks to see what works.”

In Florida, he added, “the party has to be focused on Miami-Dade in a big way because that’s the only way we can grow — not only the party infrastructure, but elected leaders.”

The election left some top Democratic donors with a sense of urgency.

“The Democratic Party needs to start to look for more diverse and dynamic candidates, people who — in this social-media world — are appealing, and I’m not sure who that is,” said Chris Korge of Pinecrest. “I think we need to have a gubernatorial candidate that has a certain degree of excitement and mystique.”

Democrats run the danger of being the party of ethnic minorities, Korge said, referring to white voters: “The average white guy feels like the Democratic Party kind of left him behind.”

But that doesn’t mean the party should promise to bring back the manufacturing industry, said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, another Clinton donor who said Trump “cannot produce wage increases or jobs for the folks we all have concern for.”

“These people are going to have to be told the truth,” he said. “The truth is we live in a globalized world where technology is eliminating jobs. And there are policies that can help with that situation.”

Russo, the SEIU leader, said Democrats must recognize that all working-class voters struggle — and it’s up to activists to show they understand their concerns and can address them.

“Put a Haitian woman in a room with a white working-class guy, and there’s a lot more that unites them than separates them,” she said. “I know this sounds probably too touchy-feely, but really that’s probably what we’re going to have to do: intentionally try to connect with folks and build community.”

Freddy Balsera, who specializes in Hispanic political strategy and worked for Murphy, said an economic message won’t only help Democrats with whites.

“On March 12 — March 12! — I wrote an email to some folks that are influential in this process telling them, ‘Guys, we need to start talking to Hispanics about economic prosperity.’ Immigration reform is a go/no-go test for us. But once you get past that, Hispanics that I talk to really care about economic prosperity. They want to open a business. They want it to do well. They want access to credit. They want to own a home and build a bigger home. We’re not talking about these things.”

“It’s not about segmentation,” he said. “It’s about a winning strategy. And with the exception of [President Barack] Obama and Bill Nelson, we don’t win in this state.”

Perhaps — motivated by Trump — Democrats can bounce back in 2018 as Republicans did in 2010 and 2014, several party members insisted.

“Something sparked,” Cuba said. “There’s a lot of energy ready to be poured into making sure we don’t roll back all the progress we made.”

Miami Herald staff writers Nicholas Nehamas and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.