Florida Democrats Challenge For Nearly Every Legislative Seat On The November Ballot
Thirty three state legislature seats were not contested by Democrats. Now, only one seat is not being contested by a Democrat.
Earlier this year, Janelle Christensen looked at a map of Florida and the list of candidates offered by the Florida Democratic Party and felt extremely underwhelmed.
A total of 140 seats in the Florida Legislature are up for election in November. Yet out of those, 33 of those races did not have any Democratic challenger.
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The realization sparked a project led by Christensen, the chair of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida, to address the situation.
Christensen started to recruit candidates who could run for every one of the 140 seats, even in the deepest red parts of the state where registered Democratic voters are a tiny minority of voters.
And now, for the first time in decades, only one state legislative seat is going uncontested by Democrats. The only exception is Florida House District 5, which Republican Rep. Brad Drake won unopposed.
“In some cases there hasn't been a Democrat running in over four to six years,” said Christensen. “The ruling party got to set all of the storylines. They got to make themselves the heroes in all of those stories, when in fact, some really bad things [happened] behind the scenes. And there was nobody to counter it.”
After announcing the effort, Christensen and other volunteers started fundraising to help would-be candidates pay their filing fees. That helped with recruiting, she said.
The lack of Democratic candidates in successive cycles could explain some of the party’s abysmal registration rates in some counties in recent years. Since the last presidential election, Republicans successfully flipped ten Florida counties from having more registered Democrats to having more registered Republicans. That includes small counties like Glades and DeSoto, but also mid-sized counties like Polk and Volusia.
In a few deeply-red Florida counties, the situation has gotten even worse for Democrats. Since 2016, the number of non-party affiliated voters has surpassed Democratic registered voters in Lee County and in Walton County, according to state records, making them the only two Florida counties where this is the case.
Both counties have had Florida legislative races that were unopposed by Democrats in the last election cycle.
Democrats have made voter registration gains in larger counties like Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange and Duval counties.
Christensen says that the Democratic Party focusing almost exclusively on big urban areas instead of forcing Republicans to actively defend rural and red-leaning districts has given Republicans a strategic leg up.
“If you don't have people running everywhere, then you allow the Republicans to focus all their financial support and energy on these competitive races,” she said. “We're just not allowing it this time.”
The effort that Christensen is spearheading was inspired by a similar push in 2019 to run Democrats in rural legislative seats in Virginia that had long since been ceded to Republicans.
That moonshot effort helped flip both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, giving Democrats full control of the state government for the first time in a generation.
It would be difficult to replicate in Florida, Christensen acknowledged, but she said someone has to run in those tough districts, if only to give Democrats something to vote for and to start forging local relationships that can be expanded upon years down the line.
The most challenging part of recruiting candidates was finding people who are okay with the fact that they will likely lose in some parts of the state, said Christensen.
“They didn't want to be embarrassed by maybe not winning,” she said. “I think it's really wonderful that so many people are willing to step up and think ‘this is a challenge’ and literally take something for the team.”
The Florida Democratic Party has taken the slow-but-steady strategy of focusing its resources on the most competitive races. To be sure, there have been tangible gains in recent cycles. Currently, the Republican lead over Democrats in the Florida Senate — 23 to 17 — is as narrow as it has been in decades.
The Florida House of Representatives has a much larger split. Republicans hold 71 seats to 46 seats held by Democrats.
The Democratic Party is focusing a huge amounts of resources on flipping three Republican-held Senate seats into Democratic hands. If successful, that would split control of the Florida Senate, giving Democrats a seat at the table for upcoming redistricting efforts and other legislative issues.
A successful run for her effort would mean flipping even a small number of House seats, or even having some of the Democratic candidates in deep-red parts of the county losing with 40 percent of the vote, said Christensen.
Christensen understands the importance of putting energy into flipping the Florida Senate, but is critical of the party for leaving whole parts of the map unattended.
“They think about like ‘I'm investing in the winning horse.’ And if it crosses the finish line first, then it was a worthwhile investment,” she said. “But in reality, you're building a sports team. If you're putting a team on the field that is not complete and you're leaving positions unguarded, then the other team is more likely to get a bunch of goals.”