The recent special election for Miami-Dade’s Senate Seat 40 was thought to be a lay-up for the Republican Party. Even after a divisive primary, which he easily won, State Representative Jose Felix Diaz had both a huge war chest and a sterling reputation to go along with it. Diaz is widely admired for his effectiveness on behalf of the entire county and his generally non-ideological approach to public policy.
For instance, even though the Miami-Dade delegation is made up of a majority of Democrats, Diaz picked up enough Democratic legislators to be elected chair of the delegation this past year. On the other hand, his Democratic opponent, former count party chair Annette Taddeo, had ran for office four times and lost each election. It turns out she was badly underestimated by conventional wisdom.
To the shock of almost everyone, Taddeo won on Election Day. The tremors were felt statewide. Senate District 40 is the kind of district Democrats win handily in presidential elections but always manage to lose in local races because of inept organizing and poor candidates.
What changed this cycle? I have mentioned in previous columns how the political consultant class has caused mischief, particularly for Democratic candidates. Typically these consultants who advise candidates are more interested in vendor commissions than in strategic political decision-making. This time it plagued the Diaz campaign. When Diaz controlled the expenditures in the primary he swamped his opponent, former state Sen. Alex Diaz Portilla, whose family is no novice to politics.
In the general election, the various committees supporting the Diaz campaign were poorly coordinated. So there was an instance of registered Republican voters receiving as many as 10 Diaz brochures in the mail in one day. Consultants receive hefty commissions when their candidates do a lot of mail. Even though Taddeo’s campaign had far less money, she was more strategic in her spending decisions. During the pre-Hurricane Irma days when people were glued to their televisions, they saw frequent Taddeo commercials, while the Diaz campaign went dark and was invisible on the airwaves.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel and local party chief Juan Cuba delivered on their promise to build a more efficient party election operation. Taddeo was the first beneficiary. This is not to say that Taddeo did not bring political skills of her own to the table. Democrats and their allied groups were well coordinated within the constraints of the law and, unlike Diaz, made an aggressive effort to attract independent voters, an increasingly important voter bloc. It is estimated they won this cohort by 10 percentage points.
The Democrats were convinced that President Trump was enormously unpopular in Miami-Dade County, and tying Diaz to him would significantly help candidate Taddeo. Diaz made an unforced error by widely circulating pictures of himself with Trump at the inauguration. The Democrats had a field day with this. In fairness, Diaz, who is nothing like Trump, appeared on “The Apprentice” 15 years ago and has had a long-term friendship with the president. But it cost him.
This race can have tremendous implications for 2018, especially in our county. The president is likely to remain extremely unpopular, and Democrats have proved they know how to take advantage of it. This win allows Bittel to tell both funders and potential candidates: “ I told you I was going to elevate the culture of the Democratic Party, and here is the proof.” It will get him more money and better candidates. For her part, Taddeo comes out of the party structure and can be counted on to help spread the message that Democratic blue is back.
My Republican friends are rightly worried about the long-term implications of this loss. For the Democrats, they feel like Hurricane fans did when UM beat FSU after seven long years. Winning and optimism is contagious, and with the demographics in their favor, Democrats may be poised to dominate Miami- Dade County. However, they can’t expect the Republicans to repeat the mistakes of the recent campaign. Democrats will have to do win the hard way by continuing to break their bad habits of the past.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.