This morning, former Gainesville area congressional candidate Adam Christensen reiterated to me that "Inept and unqualified officials like Juan Peñalosa and Rosy Golzalez-Speers and Terry Rizzo ran the Democratic Party into the ground, while defrauding the U.S. government with a PPP loan scandal. They left the Florida Democratic Party broke, their employees without health care, and deeply in debt despite record fundraising and treating their candidates as revenue sources. Their overall goal was to create an appearance of 'professionalism' while raking in money from every place they could. They burned the house to the ground after they stole all of the valuable possessions."
This was the opinion many people-- especially candidates running as Democrats-- shared last year as the state party accomplished nothing at all, while spending huge sums of money. Had the Republican Party chosen Democratic party officials to sabotage Democratic candidates from within, they couldn't have done a better job that having Rizzo and her team in place. From top to bottom, the 2020 elections were catastrophic in Florida. Trump beat Biden 5,668,731 (51.2%) to 5,297,045 (47.9%). The state lost 2 members of Congress, Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel Powell, in significantly blue Miami-Dade districts. And in the state Senate, the Republicans not only kept their majority, they picked up a Democratic-held seat. Meanwhile in the state House, the Republicans gained 7 seats. Every candidate the state party decided to bankroll lost. Every call the state party made turned out to be predictably wrong.
After the election Rizzo was finally fired-- way too late of course. Yesterday, NPR ran a national story: The Florida Democratic Party Has A Problem: It's Broke And Disorganized. After the disastrous election-- who would have thought Biden would win Georgia and lose Florida?-- "Florida Democrats were left pointing fingers and wondering what went wrong. Miami's former mayor, Democrat Manny Diaz says, "We are challenged right now because we lost, and we lost convincingly." They are challenged but because they lost but because how they lost.
Diaz, a conservative, ran for mayor as an independent, not as a Democrat. Now Bloomberg-- who Diaz supported for president-- and other rich corporate operators bought him the chair of the Florida state party. Many people expect him to be an even worse chair than Rizzo. Former Mimai-Dade state House candidate Bob Lynch, thinks Diaz will be an improvement. "The Florida Democratic Party," he told me this morning, "has been run for years as basically a slush fund for useless and overpaid consultants. I am confident that Manny Diaz will change things although it will not be easy. The rot runs deep in Florida and even our own Democratic elected officials like [state Sen.] Gary Farmer are more interested in self preservation rather than getting Democrats elected. It really is about effort. Anna Eskamani has tapped into the need for people to feel like they matter to politicians. She can be incredibly helpful focusing on voter registration and outreach in support of someone like Nikki Fried running for Governor, who has actually demonstrated how to win state wide. One of the biggest problems in Florida is everything is siloed and it’s a constant Democratic turf war. Republicans always fall in line while Dems eat their own."
Diaz is expected to try to pick up the pieces and rebuild the failed state party. NPR reported that "The 66-year-old says when he campaigned for the job, he didn't know how bad things were, especially with the party's finances. After the election, Florida's Democratic Party was in debt and couldn't pay its bills. Employees found out their health insurance had been canceled. Diaz says that was his first challenge. 'It was like survival,' he says. 'And I'm talking about the kind of survival where you're involved in counting paperclips.' He says the bleeding has stopped, health insurance has been reinstated and he has begun talking to donors about plans to make Democrats competitive in statewide races. That's a major challenge. Although Barack Obama carried Florida twice, few other Democrats have been able to win in statewide. Florida's last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, was elected in 1994, Diaz notes. 'God all mighty, right? [In] the last 34 elections for statewide offices, we lost 27.'"
Despite that history and last year's losses, Diaz believes Florida is still a swing state, one that can go Democratic in Presidential and midterm elections. He has an ambitious plan to open more offices and hire at least eight field directors to oversee canvassing operations with one primary goal: registering new Democratic voters.
That's something Florida's Democratic Party has mostly left to outside groups. Steve Schale is a Democratic strategist who directed President Obama's successful Florida campaigns. "In 2008 and 2012, Democrats had an over 500,000 voter lead among registered voters," he says. "Today it's under 100,000. That's just a function of not doing the basic blocking and tackling of going out and registering people to vote."
What Florida needs, Schale believes, is a sustained voter engagement operation similar to the one spearheaded by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Diaz, Schale says, is on the right track.
Democratic State Rep. Anna Eskamani believes the party made a mistake last year when it canceled most field operations because of COVID-19. Instead, Democrats relied on vote-by-mail registration. Eskamani, a 30-year-old progressive who represents the Orlando area, says in her campaign volunteers continued to canvass, wearing masks and going door to door. "Turnout in my district was 5% higher than the whole county," she says. "Without a good strong field operation, you're not going to be able to compete."
Eskamani is one of the Democrats mulling a possible bid against Florida's incumbent Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. DeSantis and Florida's U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio are up for re-election next year and neither appears vulnerable at this point. Eskamani says Democrats have another problem. Many of her party's potential candidates are too timid on pocketbook issues important to voters. "If you ask them about a $15 minimum wage, or you ask them about earned sick time, or fixing the unemployment system," Eskamani asks, "how bold are they going to be to actually directly address everyday people's needs?"
Next year's midterm election will have an extra challenge for Democrats in Florida and other states where Republicans control the state legislature. In many places, state lawmakers will be redrawing Congressional and state legislative districts in ways that usually benefit the party in power. In addition, a look at history shows that midterm elections usually don't turn out well for the party that's in the White House.
Jessica Post, who heads the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, says that may not be the case in next year's midterm election. The last time a president's party picked up seats in a midterm election was in 2002 when former President George W. Bush was popular and had just guided the country through a national crisis. She sees a similar storyline emerging in this cycle. "President Biden," she says, "is passing a very popular piece of legislation, the American Rescue plan. He's rolling out a vaccine."
It's possible, Democrats say, that this time history will be on their side.
Cindy Banyai ran for Congress last year in the Ft Myers, Cape Coral, Naples 19th district in southwest Florida, one of the state's reddest. She's giving it another try this cycle. The Florida Democratic Party did about as much to help her campaign as the DCCC did: nothing. Today she told me that "It’s definitely time to take a page out of Obama’s handbook with a focus on voter registration and challenging Republicans everywhere. That means building the bench in red districts too. We can’t continue to rely on a handful of heavily Democratic districts at the expense of the rest. We must win the ground game and have a compelling message otherwise the entire state will be lost to Trump and his sycophants for another decade."
The experience with the Florida party last year left so many candidates and activists bitter that I was unable to find any 2020 state legislative candidates willing to try again until after they see what Diaz does to make the party less dysfunctional. One told me that he left he had "wasted" a year of his life fighting to get support from his own party instead of fighting the GOP. "Peñalosa and his team made it impossible to win. I want to make sure this doesn't happen again." So far there is no indication that the state party has learned a thing, let alone that they're fixing anything.