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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dem Breakthrough in FL?

I’ve always thought it odd that Florida, a mega-state that has such a powerful effect on presidential elections, has generally had fairly lack-luster Democratic candidates in it’s congressional and state-wide elections. In her Florida Sun-Sentinel article, “Florida Democrats seek fresh faces to battle GOP in 2012,” Kathleen Haughney suggests that this may at long-last be changing:

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who will become the Senate Democratic leader in 2012, requires a greater emphasis on candidate recruitment and organization, and a de-emphasis on ideology.
As he puts it, “I’m not looking for a Democratic prototype, but a Democrat who can represent a district.” Party chair Smith added that the party must get better at “the blocking and tackling of running good campaigns with good candidates …
…Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political-science professor, echoed those comments but noted that the Democratic Party’s liberal image turns away moderate-to-conservative voters…”Democrats have got to sort of do a makeover of the party,” he said. “Then of course, it comes down to candidates. They’ve got to do a better job of getting candidates up there.”
……The party is reaching out to its local members, hoping to find people who have been active in business or public service and are willing to be first-time candidates. Helping is Gov. Rick Scott’s unpopularity; his low poll numbers have become a “point of rallying,” said Democratic consultant Christian Ulvert.

The numbers facing Dems in the state legislature are daunting. Currently, Republicans have a 28-12 margin in the state senate and a huge 81-39 advantage in the House. With just a few more wins, however, Dems could slow Republican legislative gains. But the demographics are certainly in place for better Democratic performance in Florida. As Haughney notes :

…Democrats haven’t turned out their voters. As of July, Florida had 4.6 million registered Democrats, compared with 4.0 million Republicans and 2.6 million nonaffiliated or minor-party voters. That edge helped carry the state for Obama in 2008 but has not been apparent for statewide candidates or in legislative races.

Senator Obama’s win in Florida suggests that more exciting Democratic candidates can make a big difference in Florida. And it may be that Florida Dems’ prospects are about to brighten. But there are formidable obstacles in place that Dems must overcome in the Sunshine State, as Haughney notes:

First, the GOP — thanks in part to its control of state government — has outraised the Democrats so far this year by 3-to-1: $8.4 million compared with the Democrats’ $2.3 million.
Second, because the Republican-controlled Legislature is drawing new legislative and congressional districts, Democrats won’t even know what the districts will look like until next spring…”Recruiting candidates is very difficult when you can’t really tell them what district they’re going to run in,” said House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West.
And finally, the Democrats haven’t turned out their voters….Said former state Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, one of the five Democratic House members ousted in the 2010 elections: “It’s no good to have the majority in the state if the people don’t vote. You’ve got to get your supporters to the polls, and we didn’t accomplish that last time. And I know that wasn’t just the issue in my district.”
Another part of the problem is that Democrats are concentrated in South Florida — especially Broward and Palm Beach counties — and in urban parts of Tampa, Orlando, Gainesville and Tallahassee. Republicans are spread more broadly, throughout the suburbs plus Southwest and North Florida…Orange County GOP Chairman Lew Oliver said that on the local level in particular, Democrats are more independent and more disorganized than Republicans.

It sounds a lot like the main problems facing Florida Democrats are organizational and/or structural. A well-designed candidate-recruitment system makeover just might be a game-changer.

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