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'You Have To Have Values': Florida Democrats Self-Reflecting After Devastating Losses

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MATIAS J. OCNER
/
Miami Herald

From getting better at organizing to zeroing in on popular policy proposals and ending reliance on third-party groups, Florida Democrats are having a 2020 postmortem on where they go after a rough general election.

For Democratic State Representative Anna Eskamani, election night was a mixed bag. She won reelection for her Orlando-area seat, but watched in horror as Florida’s Democratic Party seemed to crumble around her.

Party operatives and insiders hoped Democrats would not only be able to carry Florida for Democratic presidential nominee — and eventual president-elect — Joe Biden, but they were hopeful of picking up seats in both the Florida Senate and the Florida House of Representatives.

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In reality, Republican President Trump won the state; the party lost five seats in the state House and one in the state Senate; and two incumbent Democrats were ousted from their U.S. Congressional seats in South Florida.

“We just got killed out there,” said Eskamani.

Accessing the damage around her, Eskamani has become one of the most outspoken critics of the Florida Democratic Party, calling for increased investment on community-level organizing, and for state party leadership to step down.

“We have no field operation, we don’t value field,” she said. “We just think throwing slogans at people or photo ops at people will get them to come out and vote where the reality is that you have to earn trust and build it.”

For her own campaign, Eskamani organized a grassroots core of election volunteers and consistent messaging on issues that she said simply matter the most to voters.

This time around, it meant talking about revamping Florida’s dysfunctional unemployment system. And it also meant pushing for better access to healthcare during a pandemic and supporting a ballot amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2026 — even as party leaders only gave it lukewarm support, at best.

That ballot amendment passed with more than 60% of the vote, far better than both Biden or Trump fared. Eskamani points to this as evidence that Democratic-leaning ideas win, but something with the campaigning has fallen flat.

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News Service of Florida
State Rep. Anna Eskamani

“You have to have values. You have to stand for something. For far too long, we've been very squishy. We've been nervous to take positions on important issues,” said Eskamani. “As a result, voters don't feel inspired to come out and vote.”

In many ways Christian Ulvert agrees with Eskamani. He was a strategist and advisor for one of the few bright spots for Florida Democrats: he worked on the campaign of Miami-Dade’s mayor elect Daniella Levine Cava. It was technically a nonpartisan race, but Levine Cava won by campaigning as a progressive, with a strong focus on field operations and word-of-mouth grassroots support.

“It comes down to brand management,” said Ulvert. "You can’t get people fired up about a campaign if you don’t stake out strong, popular positions."

He pointed to Hialeah as an example of a lost opportunity. The Latino-majority city voted overwhelmingly for Trump, but it also voted to raise the minimum wage, two votes that seemingly contradict each other.

“People are voting for something that they feel is the right thing, but they're not equating that to the Democratic Party,” said Ulvert. “That is our fundamental problem.”

The Florida Democrats’ lack of a robust field operation stands in sharp contrast to the Republican operation in Florida, going back to before the pandemic. President Trump’s campaign had organizers on the ground in Florida since the 2016 election, and they never stopped organizing events, rallies and caravans.

Those efforts on the Trump campaign’s part gave them a major leg up when they honed in on the “Democrats are socialist” message that carried the campaign through the 2020 election. The message resonated in particular with Latino voters, many of whom left socialist countries before coming to the U.S.

“You can't parachute in a couple of months before an election,” Danielle Alvarez, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign told WLRN before the election. “It's good old fashioned ground game and good old fashioned hard work. Prior to the pandemic, we were out at events collecting voter registrations, a pandemic hit, and we had invested enough in our ground game and tech that we switched to a completely virtual campaign within twenty four hours. Then in June, we found safe ways to get back to in-person campaigning.”

Democrats, in contrast, urged people to stay at home and largely avoid in-person campaigning during the pandemic. It was a crucial part of the messaging for the 2020 campaign, and with valid concerns. Yet in the 2020 races, it might have backfired politically.

The Republican efforts, knocking on doors and mobilizing voters both before and during the pandemic, paid major dividends.

Most notably, between the 2016 election and last month, Republicans flipped ten counties across the state from having more registered Democrats to having more registered Republicans. Those include larger counties like Polk and Volusia in Central Florida, along with smaller counties like Dixie, DeSoto, Wakulla, Putnam, Union, Lafayette, Glades and Jackson. Republicans used to have more than 2,000 fewer registered voters in Hendry County, on the edge of Lake Okeechobee, but been able to shrink the gap to a few hundred voters.

Democrats did not flip any counties to their advantage. In Seminole County they came close to breaking even, bringing the Republican advantage to fewer than 1,000 voters.

All of this is evidence of the state party lacking a piece of fundamental infrastructure, said Rep. Eskamani. And it left candidates vulnerable to attacks labeling Democrats as “socialists,” she said.

“If you have a field game, none of those attacks stick as much,” she said.

The simplistic, formulaic success of those attacks worry some Democrats.

“It worked,” said State Senator Gary Farmer, a Broward Democrat. “It looks like these non-Cuban Hispanic voters broke heavily Republican up and down the ballot, and that’s an issue we’re going to have to deal with going forward.”

One way that the party can break out of it is by relying less on third-party groups for funding some state efforts and building up the party’s own infrastructure, suggested Farmer. He cited $11.8 million that the Super PAC Forward Majority brought to the state at the last minute to help with races in the Florida House.

The branches of the state party that help Democrats running for the Florida Senate and the Florida House did not directly receive any of that money, as it went to other groups doing work across the state.

“These groups do not coordinate,” he said. “We have to realize that this fragmented system we have isn’t working. We have relied on them to our extreme detriment.”

On the Republican side, far more of the heavy lifting — from voter registration drives, to voter outreach, education and organizing — is done by the party itself, in coordination with marquee campaigns.

Dwight Bullard, a former Democratic state senator and executive director of the left-leaning social justice advocacy group the New Florida Majority, said this part of the problem boils down to a chicken and egg question. His group helps with voter outreach and mobilization, in particular in poor communities.

“A lot of the love that we’re shown by outside donors has to do with them not respecting or valuing what the Democratic Party has done in the past,” said Bullard. “That’s a 365, holistic thing that has to be dealt with.”

Throughout the 2020 election cycle, Bullard said it started to become clear that the Democratic Party was just absent in some places like South Dade, and it was not engaging in the kind of conversations that it should have been involved in.

“What has been exposed in 2020 was — you basically hadn't talked to those folks in four years,” said Bullard. “You left people to make the determination that Democrats are socialists. You left without defending that narrative, or eradicating that narrative. And so here’s where we are.”