More than two months after enduring humbling midterm losses, Democrats in Florida are in a state of disorder, with no clear leader, infrastructure, or consensus for rebuilding, according to interviews with more than a dozen organizers, former lawmakers, donors and other leaders.
These factors have compounded their worries about Democrats outside Florida all but writing off the nation’s third most populous state, which was once seen as a marquee battleground. Democrats have struggled there in recent elections, hitting a new low last fall when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis won a second term by nearly 20 points and carried majority-Hispanic Miami-Dade County, which a GOP gubernatorial nominee hadn’t done in 20 years. Republicans also secured a supermajority in the state legislature.
Now, as Democrats look to 2024, there are few early signs that Florida will be a top priority for President Biden, who has said he intends to run for reelection. A Biden adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe strategy, said decisions about whether a reelection campaign would invest in Florida would be based in part on the Republican nominee. Some Democrats see little hope of contesting Florida’s 30 electoral votes — only Texas and California are allotted more — in 2024 if DeSantis is the nominee, while there’s a greater opportunity if former president Donald Trump wins the GOP nod.
“The thing about Florida Democrats is we keep learning with every passing year that just when you thought you had hit bottom, you discover that there are new abysses to fall deeper and deeper into,” said Fernand Amandi, a veteran Democratic operative in the state. “There is no plan. There’s nothing. It’s just a state of suspended animation and chaos — and, more than anything, it’s the mournful regret and acceptance that Florida has been cast aside for the long, foreseeable future.”
It is unclear to many Florida Democrats whether they will be able to field a competitive U.S. Senate nominee next year for the seat currently held by Sen. Rick Scott (R); the last time they won a Senate race in the state was 2012. There are currently no Democratic statewide officeholders — a first since Reconstruction.
More immediately, they face the question of who will helm the state party after the recent resignation of Manny Diaz, the embattled chairman who faced mounting calls for him to step down. There is no immediate front-runner for the position, Democrats said, and the Democratic National Committee has no preference for next chair yet, according to a person familiar with the deliberations, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private considerations.
“There are really no Democrats in Florida who have money or are motivated,” said John Morgan, a major Democratic donor and trial lawyer in central Florida, who bemoaned the lack of a bench of Democratic candidates.
One bright spot for Democrats was the 2022 victory of Rep. Maxwell Frost, who has attracted national attention for becoming the first Gen Z congressman. But on the whole, Democrats could point to few marquee recruits for future races.
Beyond worries about its candidates, Democrats in the state say there’s no unified plan for how the party is going to create a year-round operation that gets voters registered or helps them regain relevance with Floridians. Many are calling for greater investments from donors, a more robust field program and more aggressive counterarguments to GOP messaging.
National Democratic groups mostly looked past Florida in the 2022 midterms, with the governor’s race failing to become a priority for the Democratic Governors Association and the Senate race failing to attract much attention from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its affiliated outside groups. The DNC also left the state off a list of likely 2024 battleground states that received extra investments for 2022. Some large Democratic-leaning donations did flow into the state through other outside groups, including nonprofits focused on voter registration, which do not disclose their donors.
The DNC said it is already making early 2024 investments in Florida. In November, the DNC announced it would hire full-time press staff in the state. But this came after the DNC decided against giving Florida the extra midterm election resources that it provided other states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to prepare the groundwork for the next presidential contest.
“Last cycle, the DNC doubled down on our 50-state strategy with historic midterm investments and we remain firmly committed to that approach — including in Florida,” said DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison in a statement. “We are already laying the groundwork for additional resources headed into 2024.”
Florida — which voted for Barack Obama twice and featured close gubernatorial and Senate elections in 2018 — has in many ways taken a back seat to other increasingly competitive states, such as Georgia and Arizona in recent elections, where demographic changes and political trends have made the terrain more favorable for the party. Some warned that setting Florida aside in the long run would be unwise.
“Florida reminds me of the Monty Python ‘Dead, Not Dead’ skit. Yes, the state is expensive and complicated to campaign in, but with 30 electoral votes and a population that lines up well with the makeup of the Democratic coalition, Democrats can’t afford to bury it,” Juan Peñalosa, former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement.
As they grapple with their political future, Democrats are also reckoning with policy costs their losses have exacted. DeSantis has made Florida a laboratory for conservative policies that have been lauded and adopted by Republicans elsewhere in the country, including banning certain textbooks in schools and barring transgender minors from receiving certain health-care treatments. He has positioned himself as a top potential presidential contender for 2024, and polls have shown that a majority of voters in the state support his handling of the pandemic and other challenges facing Floridians.
Former congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) said a lack of investment from Democratic donors helped pave the way for DeSantis to achieve national prominence and has given him “a clear path … to be able to make a case for himself.” Mucarsel-Powell predicted a long road to recovery for Democrats: “There’s going to be a lot of difficult work to rebuild trust in the party.”
The GOP’s gains came even as the state’s electorate in recent elections has become younger and more diverse — trends that Democrats long felt were on their side. Republicans overtook Democrats in voter registration in 2021, figures that only widened in the lead-up to the midterm election. The state has more than 5.3 million registered Republicans and just under 5 million registered Democrats, according to state figures. And in the months since the election, pollsters and operatives have found that the state saw depressed turnout among Democrats.
Christian Ziegler, vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party, touted DeSantis’s victory as a product of him being a “relentless fighter” willing to take on tough issues and delivering wins for Floridians. “Under Governor DeSantis, freedom has overtaken sunshine as the No. 1 driver of tourism and relocation,” Ziegler said.
In his resignation letter, Diaz, former mayor of Miami, blamed the 2022 losses on a lack of funding, volunteers, effective messaging or programming to engage with voters. He said the party has a “long-standing, systemic and deeply entrenched culture resistant to change.”
“We cannot win elections if we continue to rely on voter registration to drive turnout, build field operations only around elections, and expect to get our vote out without engaging voters where they live,” Diaz wrote in his more than 2,300-word letter.
Diaz did not respond to request for comment.
Diaz’s resignation came amid growing calls for him to step down with two years left in his term. Even before the 2022 losses, some Florida Democrats had already raised alarms that Diaz was not an effective party leader. Some said that he was disengaged, wouldn’t listen to outside opinions and had failed to deliver on his promises to build the state party.
Several Democrats are vying for the job, including former state senator Annette Taddeo and Alex Berrios, co-founder of Mi Vecino, a year-round voter registration group in Florida. But conversations with more than a dozen Democratic operatives and leaders show there’s no clear successor. Democrats are expected to elect a new state chair in a meeting on February 25. The Florida Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Several Democrats voiced optimism that Diaz’s resignation could serve as a fresh opportunity for the party.
“A lot of leaders in the party and activists have been demanding for the necessary soul-searching to happen and I think now that Manny Diaz has stepped down, it forces Democrats to have those tough conversations about what’s needed to rebuild the party,” said Juan Cuba, former chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
In Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county, where Hispanics make up almost 60 percent of the electorate, Democrats blame their losses on a lack of money, strong messaging and organizing to reach the community, as well as having few formidable candidates. Meanwhile, Republicans kept up an aggressive year-round ground operation in the county aimed at building on Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters there in 2020.
Republican gains with Hispanics across the state have come from an overperformance with conservative-leaning Cuban Americans and further inroads with the state’s growing Puerto Rican, Colombian, Venezuelan and other Hispanic populations. Republicans have aggressively sought to link Democrats to the party’s far-left flank in recent years, branding them as “socialists” even as they reject that label and philosophy. Some Democrats argue that Republican gains with Hispanics in Florida is less about their policies resonating and more about Democrats not showing up to counter GOP messaging.
There is widespread agreement that regardless of who leads the state party, any rebuilding effort will require buy-in from many people and organizations.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D) said the party needs to “go back to basics” and focus on building out its field operations with more people knocking on doors and trying to engage with communities across the state. She lamented how the party has lacked a robust infrastructure for several years, which ultimately led her to start her own voter registration and engagement operation.
“We’re very much at the bottom of the bottom,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be this large-scale sexy program. It just has to be a program. Nothing’s going to happen overnight or in one election cycle, but we need to start building now.”
Vanessa Rolon, a Democratic operative who worked for the Florida Democratic Party on a program meant to help municipal candidates, explained that the party’s problems stem from taking voters and donors for granted. Rolon recalled how 10 years ago she visited a field office in Hialeah, a heavily Cuban American city in South Florida, and picked up a packet to go door-knocking in that community.
“Fast forward to today, that is nonexistent,” she said. “That’s the embodiment of what has gone wrong, where that’s gone and then you have Republicans building these offices everywhere. They’ve been organizing and we’ve regressed.”