Florida Democrats entered Election Day with candidates running in every state Senate race on the ballot and nearly every state House race. Polling suggested they could expand the Democratic caucus in both chambers of the Legislature, if majority status still seemed at least a cycle away.
Instead, Republicans flipped five seats red in the House. No gains were made in the upper chamber. In the Senate, an imminent recount will shed light on the last outstanding district results, but Democratic incumbent Jose Javier Rodriguez goes into that process 31 votes down. And Joe Biden, while winning enough swing states to take the White House, fell short in Florida by a margin many thought impossible in a particularly purple state.
What happened? Were Democrats too eager to play everywhere? Was enough support provided to competitive districts? Were the right seats targeted at all? Or were there forces at play beyond the control of any Democratic candidate or consultant in the crazy year called 2020?
In the tradition of soul searching and finger pointing that follows bad election cycles for a party, many offer different answers to these questions. But there’s solace shared across the board in one fact: Donald Trump lost. And if that’s because he spent resources on Florida that could have been redirected to Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona or Georgia, then maybe it was all worth it.
“Trump had to spend a lot of time and energy on Florida,” said Janelle Christensen, president of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida. “If he loses the federal election, then it’s a win. And maybe we had a part in that.”
“Certainly the money that the Trump campaign and the RNC has spent in Florida was money that couldn’t be spent in other battleground states,” said Joy Howell, a Democratic consultant.
That may offer little solace when the Legislature convenes, especially as the reapportionment process begins and draws political boundaries for the next decade. But Democrats also plan to study the tactics employed this year to figure what mistakes can be avoided in the next campaign cycle.
Thanks as much to the work of grassroots activists as any official party leaders, Democrats filed this year for every legislative race on the ballot, and qualified candidates in all but one seat. The basic premise — you can’t win if you don’t run — generated headlines and skepticism from the start. But the potential benefits, that even if most candidates lost it would tie up GOP incumbents’ attention while activating Democratic voters — seemed worthy of attention.
With the election done, none of those long-shot candidates won elections and Democrats underperformed across the board. So was it a good idea? Republican Speaker-designate Chris Sprowls scoffed early on at Democrats’ strategy.
“Democrats were just focused on whether Democrats were running in every district. We said ‘let’s get the best candidates in the competitive districts,’” he said before the election.
Certainly, Republican recruits performed. Linda Chaney, Demi Busatta Cabrera and Dana Trabulsy all unseated Democratic incumbents. Republican incumbents believed to be in danger all stood up to challenges.
But was that the fault of too broad a field?
Christensen, who played a major role in recruiting candidates, said she’d like to know if running everywhere was a good strategy or not.
“I’m not sure that running candidates everywhere was the reason why there was improvement. There are some DECs that worked very closely with the blue wave coalition and the Dem turnout was so much better in those counties,” she said.
Most agree that fielding so many Democrats didn’t do real harm.
“At the end of the day, just running candidates in every seat doesn’t mean every candidate gets the same attention and money,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat. She pushes back a little at the notion running everywhere was a progressive effort, and saw it more a product of the grassroots, not based in ideology. But she sees values in candidates getting experience on the trail even in seemingly impossible contests.
Matthew Isbell, a Democratic data consultant, questions if running everywhere holds any benefit. But ultimately, he doesn’t think it necessarily hurt Democrats
“When it comes to running people for every seat, there is no evidence of a reverse coattail effect working simply by having people filed,” he said. “Most candidates sadly didn’t have the money to really compete. It would have been one thing if the groups pushing their recruits could offer financial backing to help form an organized ground game. That wasn’t done, however. So it really didn’t matter in the end.”
Fergie Reid, the head of voting rights group 90 For 90, played a significant role in the effort to run in all districts, something that paid off over multiple campaign cycles in Virginia, a one-time swing state that now looks firmly blue with Democrats in control of the Legislature and Governor’s mansion.
“This is a new thing for the consulting class in Florida,” he said. But he sees many of Democrats’ past woes stemming from poor tactics compared to the Florida GOP.
Still, the elections led to some notable tension that even made it into national media. Sources told Florida Politics that Sen. Gary Farmer, the incoming Democratic leader in the chamber, at points asked Democrats not to run in red seats. Friction between Farmer and the grassroots seemed to boil over in a July Twitter exchange with Reid where he said Democrats needed to be strategic.
“Contesting every race is great if you have $ to do so,” Farmer wrote. “We simply don’t & won’t until we achieve majority. When you spend on races that are long shots you take $ from races that can be won.”
But at this point, Reid suggests even that doesn’t hold weight considering Democrats’ Senate Victory put the bulk of its efforts into flipping two Senate districts, SD 9 and SD 39, and failed in both efforts. Meanwhile, some of those long shots posted higher vote totals and better margins.
Patricia Sigman, widely believed Democrats’ best shot at flipping a seat, earned the most raw votes of any Senate Democrat trying to make a red seat blue. She won 133,876 votes in her SD 9 bid against Jason Brodeur and lost by less than 3 percentage points. But Javier Fernandez only pulled in 95,116 votes in SD 39, losing to Republican Ana Maria Rodriguez by nearly 13 points.
Meanwhile, Democrat Kathy Lewis, a second-time candidate in SD 20, raked in 116,665 votes against Danny Burgess, who beat her by just under 10 points. As far as raw votes, Heather Hunter earned 131,745 in a bid against incumbent Republican Travis Hutson, though she lost by nearly 24 points.
Regardless, Reid sees value in all those Democratic Senate efforts, and wonders if the real question should be whether the party establishment put its resources behind the right campaigns or if they would not help candidates they did not recruit. Certainly, he sees negligence in helping Lewis, a Black woman who could activate Democrats’ most loyal constituency.
It raises the question, was this really about whether battlegrounds need to be targeted? Or is it a question of whether state officials had the wrong races in their sights?
The right races
On the flip side, an election night absent any Democratic successes also raised another question. Regardless of how many grassroots candidates ran, did Democratic powers put enough power behind those who actually had a chance? The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, counter to an apparent national environment, forced Democrats to a degree onto defense, fighting both for an open blue seat in SD 3 and challenging Rodriguez’s reelection in a seat the Democrat flipped in 2016 by fewer than 6,000 votes.
Now, Rodriguez sits on the wrong side of a 31-vote divide headed for a state-mandated machine recount. SD 3 stayed in Democratic hands. But the case can easily be made Republicans successfully achieved what those Democrats in long shot districts aimed to do and forced Democrats to expend energy in places where there wasn’t supposed to be any danger.
So what happened? Sigman led in several polls against Brodeur, and nobody expected a double-digit defeat for Fernandez.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, said he thinks the world simply wrecked Democrats’ ambitions.
“I don’t think the aim of picking up two seats, while retaining existing, was too ambitious pre-COVID,” he said. “But the game changed, and the Party didn’t pivot effectively.”
He doesn’t think the party employed a wrong-headed tactic.
“We have two years between staggered elections in the Senate— if we are not holding and growing at the same time, our message isn’t resonating, so I don’t fault the decision,” he said. “Defending in politics (or war) is paramount, but advancing is the goal. If under-equipped, you obviously risk losing not just the instant battle.”
But plenty of members feel flabbergasted by failures this cycle. Eskamani has called for the resignations of Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo and Executive Director Juan Penalosa. She’s vocally criticized what feels like a prioritization of consultants getting paid over candidates being supported. She’s especially critical of House Victory.
“They have demonstrated an incompetency when it came to managing campaigns,” Eskamani said. “Obviously we did not have that type of internal brain power at all in the current team at House Victory.”
There’s been a long-brewing controversy about the management of House Victory in particular. After a successful 2018 cycle for Democrats in the state House, new caucus leadership replaced its consultants purportedly to have dedicated in-house staff. Shortly after this year’s primaries, a top Democratic strategist widely shared a spreadsheet that showed an apparent lack of resources being poured into competitive races.
Eskamani, in 2020, defended a seat successfully that she flipped blue two years ago, but said that came thanks to her own fundraising and work in her district, not help from the state.
Pizzo, when asked about how the state party handled targeting of seats, joked, “What party?”
Among consultants, there’s less interest in attacking one another. But many also said it will take time to unravel exactly what happened on Tuesday night.
“I was less privy to targets, but it seems clear many seats that otherwise may have backed Biden also split their ticket to vote GOP,” Isbell said. “Whether this was due to a lack of targeting or voters opting to split tickets because they assumed Biden would easily win is not clear to me yet.”
There’s also the fact that despite Biden winning the White House, it wasn’t a terribly good night for Democrats anywhere.
“It’s useless to try and cast blame somewhere when clearly the results were so similar nationwide,” Howell said.
A national message
Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, understands why many people, a week after the election, want to know what went wrong for Democrats in Florida. Were mistakes made at House Victory? Senate Victory? The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who failed to defend Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s or Donna Shalala’s Congressional seats?
The truth to Geller seems to be both all of the above, but no one exclusively.
“I’m certainly one who does not think we should be blaming FDP as solely responsible,” he said. “For what it’s worth, we need a deep dive study of exactly what happened.”
Party leadership has taken some heat, particularly over applying for and receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan (and ultimately returning it). A number of Democratic candidates were hammered after that, including some like Rep. Delores Hogan Johnson who lost their races.
He notes that most polls showed Biden winning by a much larger margin than the one that’s coming together. A closer look at the polls leaves Geller, an early Biden endorser, now wondering if any candidate but the moderate, with a decades-long relationship with working class voters, could have broken through with enough people to defeat Trump.
Geller sees messaging problems facing Democrats that reach beyond any decisions made or missteps taken by Florida’s party leadership. In many ways, the blind hatred Democrats hold for Trump has stopped them from seeing why so many Americans could support the President in the first place.
“I don’t think we’ve rebuilt the blue wall. Those are narrow margins,” he said. “As a party, we need to figure out why people trusted the most incompetent, obnoxious President maybe in our whole history. Why did they trust him on the economy? What about his message resonated with people who don’t agree with him and don’t like him?
“I just think the notion this was a failure of tactics in Florida House races or legislative races — I mean, we didn’t flip one state Legislature in the country. And everybody thought it was going to be different.”
Howell suggests something similar.
“I think you have to look at the fact that Democrats lost up and down the ticket in Florida, starting at the top and going all the way down,” she said.
Geller holds particular contempt for whatever activist came up with the phrase “Defund The Police,” writing the script for countless an attack ad painting Democrats hoping for a future where no one picks up 911 calls on the receiving end.
“But we need to look at the fact there is a profound economic anxiety— one that is not just about the pandemic,” he said.
Ultimately, for Democrats to have a chance to win over the middle class — those same voters who voted to increase the minimum wage, re-enfranchise felons stripped of the right to vote, legalized medical marijuana and adopted any number of progressive positives through ballot referenda that a Republican Legislature would not touch — something has to change with branding at a higher level.
“Sometimes when you are busy looking at something in a microscope, you fail to see something coming in the real world,” Geller said.