FL Democrats confront a hard truth: ‘We need a whole new direction’

Leon County
Photo by CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

Florida Democrats on Wednesday were absorbing a stunning rebuke: President Donald Trump carried Florida with 51.24 percent of the vote to Biden’s 47.85 percent, a difference of nearly 400,000 votes out of 11 million cast, according to unofficial Florida Division of Elections data.

Trump claimed Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Moreover, his party added five seats to its majority in the Florida House of Representatives and may have expanded its 23-17 majority in the state Senate. Republican Ileana Garcia holds a 21-vote lead over Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez in Senate District 37 in Miami-Dade County, which will force a recount.

Meanwhile, South Florida Democrats Donna Shalala and Debby Murcarsel-Powell lost their seats in Congress.

How the Democrats stumbled so badly is still not known.

But State Rep. Evan Jenne of Broward County, policy chairman for the House Democratic caucus, had this to say:

Rep. Evan Jenne. Credit: Florida House

“There needs to be a major, major deep dive and autopsy — whatever term you want to put on it,” Jenne said. “Not just on what the party did but how the party is structured and what that’s going to look like going forward. Because, quite clearly, what we’re doing now ain’t working.”

Democrat Javier Fernandez, who lost Senate District 39 to Republican Ana Maria Rodriguez, on Twitter lamented his party’s “total systemic failure.”

He blamed “party, caucuses, affiliated & independent groups. People have spoken & clearly said they don’t want what we are offering. Unforgivable part is that no one saw this coming. We got beat & bad. We need to own it so we can move on & rebuild.”

Democrats are likely deciphering some of things that went wrong.

Unreturned ballots

They beat Republicans in the early vote-by-mail and in-person turnout — 3.58 million to 3.46 million, with more than 1 million no-party-affiliation early votes (not counting votes for other parties).

But they left nearly 500,000 mail-in ballots unreturned to elections supervisors, compared to nearly 370,000 for the Republicans. Those unspent Democratic ballots could have made the difference for Biden.

Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo issued the following statement:

“I would like to thank all of our down ballot Democrats, our party leaders, our staff and our volunteers who gave their blood, sweat, and tears to help Democrats win. While we are confident In the ultimate victory of Joe Biden, I know our Florida losses sting deep, for our party, the candidates, and the 5 million Florida Democrats looking to build on the progress we have made. Together with our state and national partners, we need to do a deep dive to address data and turnout issues that caused these losses, and where our party goes from here.”

Florida House Victory, the state House caucus’ campaign arm, issued this statement:

“We’re obviously disappointed with the results in statehouse races, but they track what happened here in the state Senate, congressional, and the presidential races. It appears people voted Republican at the top of the ticket on down and some of our outstanding candidates lost as a result. Floridians are obviously very divided on the vision for the state and the country. We will continue to fight to enact policies that help everyday Floridians.”

Recriminations began almost immediately. House Democrat Anna Eskamani, who cruised to a second term in her Orlando-based District 45, was perhaps the first to speak out Tuesday evening.

“I’m saying it now. We need a whole new direction for the @FlaDems. We are losing too many incredible down-ballot elected officials and candidates right now and it’s not ok. I know we have the potential to be better and do better,” she said on Twitter.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani. Credit: Colin Hackley

Eskamani cited failure by many Democrats to campaign around Amendment 2, the minimum wage hike that looked likely to have cleared the 60 percent voter approval threshold. Republican leaders including DeSantis campaigned ardently against the proposal.

“Democratic Party is scared to stand with working people because then the corporations that fund @FlaDems and so many candidates will get mad and stop throwing crumbs at us while they throw a LOT more at Republican Party and caucuses. We lose, the people lose — corporations win,” she tweeted Wednesday.

Early votes, Cuba and Venezuela

William Large, president of the conservative Florida Justice Reform Institute, had called the outcome days before the election in an interview with the Phoenix, citing Democrats’ failure to return enough early votes to counteract what seemed like a strong Trump vote on election day.

To Large, many pre-election forecasts overlooked the saliency of Trump’s policy toward Cuba and Venezuela.

President Obama had moved toward rapproachement with Cuba but Trump reversed course, and he and other Republicans took a hard line toward Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

“I think he solidified the entire Cuban-American vote behind the Republican banner,” Large said. Venezuelan-Americans, too, “have become loyal Republican voters.”

Additionally, voters in the Panhandle demonstrated “robust loyalty and support for Trump,” he said.

Biden won Miami-Dade with 617,201 votes against 532,409 for Trump. But the president had boosted his 2016 result by a reported 9 percent in a county where Hispanics comprise a quarter of the electorate. Biden’s win wasn’t big enough to offset the GOP vote elsewhere.

Still, the “Cuban voters” angle on Trump’s victory in Florida does not capture the whole picture, said Abel Iraola, press secretary for NextGen Florida, founded by former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer.

“I think that what’s lost there is that the second- and third-generation Cuban Americans — those of us whose parents came here or grandparents came here — are much more likely to be Democrat and vote for Biden,” he said.

“The generational part — you have to look at it as people who have spent all their lives here and people who are coming and adopting this Republican identity,” Iraola said.

A study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University suggests that had the election been put solely to voters between the ages of 18 and 29, Biden would have won Florida with 64 percent of the votes.

Democrats fell to a three-pronged attack, in Jenne’s view: “All Democrats are socialists and they want to defund the police and they took PPE money that should have gone to help everyday Floridians. Those were all things that resonated very deeply with people,” he said.

That last item involved the state party’s acceptance of COVID-related emergency aid that proved embarrassing when disclosed to the public. The party later returned at least $780,000, according to published reports.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ view

Gov. Ron DeSantis addressed reporters about the 2020 election returns on Nov. 4, 2020. Source: Screenshot

Gov. Ron DeSantis — easily the president’s biggest booster around here — called Trump’s victory “significant.” Even “historic.”

“I think his barnstorming — the extent to which this campaigning matters I don’t know. But I think in his case, doing these big events, the electricity it generated when we were in Miami-Dade right on the eve of the election, it was a really incredible thing to do,” the governor told reporters.

He referred to rallies Trump and his family members and Vice President Mike Pence staged in Florida, generally in defiance of social distancing and face-mask guidance, and often accompanied by the governor.

“You have to admit that Donald Trump is very popular in the state of Florida — or more popular than I think Democrats are willing to admit,” said Jenne, policy chairman for the House Democratic caucus.

To DeSantis, it also helped that Trump helped Florida with money for pressing needs including Everglades restoration, hurricane relief, and space infrastructure. “You name it, the president’s been there,” he said.

The governor said Florida’s conduct of the election should serve as an example to other states.

“Perhaps 2020 was the year that we finally vanquished the ghost of Bush v. Gore,” he said.

“If the third most populous state in the country can count 11 million votes, produce a result across the board, why can’t some of these other states that are much smaller?”

Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, agreed with Gov. DeSantis that the election ran smoothly.

Brigham
Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. Credit: www.lwvfl.org

“Florida turned out a historic number of voters — and no matter what the outcome, we can be proud that so many Florida voters voted,” she said.

DeSantis was “really disappointed” in the way news broadcasters called races in various states. He said Florida could have been called by 8:30 p.m., once the early vote came in from Miami-Dade. “There was a real resistance to just recognize reality.”

DeSantis also savaged the polling industry, which he said “has not got elections right since 2012” and “just couldn’t have missed this one, I think, any worse if you look at some of the things that were circulating over these last many weeks and months.”

He declared: “If you’re that bad at your job, maybe some of these prognosticators should find another line of work. Because I can’t think of another line of work where you can be wrong so many times and then still be there to be able to offer analysis going forward.”

DeSantis took no questions but said: “I’ll be back to take questions probably some time before the weekend.”

Phoenix reporter Danielle J. Brown contributed to this story.