Last week, Democrats jubilantly watched the U.S. House of Representatives install Nancy Pelosi as speaker. This week, Florida Democrats watched yet another Republican governor sworn into office, leaving them to ponder what went wrong. Democrats had young, eloquent well-funded candidates, but it was not enough.
As with any close election, there are a number of reasons for the losses, but let’s focus on one: the persistent systemic weakness of the Florida Democratic Party.
One of the core missions of the state party is to build a strong grassroots organization that is consistently ready and able to turn out Democratic voters in the general election. A few years ago, many institutional Democratic funders, frustrated with the Florida Democratic Party began to divert resources to fund their own parallel field programs. Additionally, outside PACS like the Democracy Alliance and Tom Steyer’s NextGen also chose not to entrust the party with their resources. Consequently, the party was unable to support its nominees in 2018 with a strong centralized field organization.
In early 2018, underfunded and under-resourced, the Florida Democratic Party abdicated the responsibility of organizing the large urban counties to these parallel field organizations. The state party limited itself to organizing the smaller suburban and rural counties. However, the party and candidates are not allowed to coordinate with these outside groups. Consequently, Democratic nominees weren’t able to count on a singular coherent field organization that is deeply rooted in the communities they are responsible for. It was not surprising that many African-American and Hispanic community leaders in the larger counties felt ignored, and Democratic turnout suffered as a result.
When Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum became the nominee and recognized the critical error, he forced the state party to invest in the larger counties, but it was too little too late. This type of infrastructure needs to be built well in advance, not days before ballots are mailed out.
If voters in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade turned out at a slightly higher level, Gillum would have been sworn in as Florida’s governor.
These parallel groups are not ill-intended by any means, and their lack of confidence in the state party may be understandable. However it is only the party, with all its imperfections, that offers the structure to build something that has any permanence. This is not reinventing the wheel. Republicans in Florida and Democrats elsewhere have successfully built reliable grassroots support embedded in the party structure.
It has to begin with prominent Democratic officeholders around Florida making a commitment to the party beyond it being a vehicle through which to pass donations. They have to recognize beyond paying lip service that there are many good Democratic committee people laboring within the party structure.
Officeholders and prominent unelected Democrats need to bring the donors and allied groups to the party’s table.
This is going to require a lot of people who are used to their own fiefdoms checking their egos at the door. It may mean that some consultants who have grown wealthy through these organizations get left behind.
They will have to agree on a party leader that they will rally around and support. Ideally, it would be a person whose motives cannot be doubted and whose only political ambition is to build an effective and sustainable party, organized upward from the county level. This cannot be done in a vacuum because, ultimately, it is the State Committee that elects the party chair.
All this has to be done painstakingly, on a collegial basis with the current leadership of the state party. It will no doubt require some current leaders of the Florida Democratic Party to step aside. Elected officials, donors and party activists must put aside their petty differences. This, beyond doubt, is a thankless task, but we have paid dearly in Florida for lack of consistent party-building .
There is no time to waste. The 2020 presidential campaign is starting — and the consequences of the Democrats losing Florida again are too painful to contemplate.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.