Florida Democrats Living in the 20th Century: The Myth of Swing Voters Dies Hard

The political landscape in Florida has changed a great deal in the past decade, but the more that changes, even more stays the same. Florida’s Democrats appear fearful of nominating perceived liberal candidates from southeast Florida and are again discussing the need to place “moderate” Democrats in key races. Yet the track record of Florida’s Democrats on such matters is pitiful at best.  With the exception of Charlie Crist, a proven winner and vote getter who is not currently a registered Democrat, the names being tossed around have the stench of lost races of yesteryear. Yet, Democrats have theories about electability statewide with regards to the likes of Kendrick Meek, Lois Frankel, Debbie Wassermann Schultz and others that have never actually been tested in a General Election campaign one on one with an ideological Republican candidate.

We’ve been on this ride before. Florida’s Democratic Primary voters were told by party elders in 2002 that Janet Reno’s nomination would be a disaster for Democrats and that the “moderate” Bill McBride from Tampa would be the right image for the party. Well meaning activists and elected officials pushed McBride down primary voters throats because they had been told he was the strongest possible statewide candidate against the popular and politically astute Jeb Bush.  Thanks to this push, McBride won almost every Florida county in the primary with Reno, but lost badly in the three southeast Florida counties (which more resemble New York or New Jersey in voting patterns than the rest of Florida).

McBride’s nomination was disastrous for Florida’s Democrats with the GOP winning a record majority in both chambers of the Florida Legislature.  One can only speculate on Janet Reno’s electability statewide. While many southeast Floridians seem to owe more loyalty to New York or New Jersey than to Florida, Reno was distinctly old Florida. McBride, on the other hand, spoke like an old Floridian, but lacked the understanding and passion for issues affecting old Florida, particularly environmental ones. McBride was a distinctly new Florida lawyer with little idea how to appeal to ethnic urban voters or old Florida constituencies. His nomination was a disaster up and down the I-4 corridor where he was badly routed by Bush.

This cycle was repeated in the 2004 US Senate race when southeast Floridians Alex Penelas and Peter Deutsch were considered “too ethnic” for voters north of Jupiter. Much like politics in northern states, ethnic urban candidates are often seen as undesirable in the rural and suburban areas of those states. Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York have long histories of nominating candidates from outside urban areas in their Democratic Primaries.  The obsession of Pennsylvania and Illinois Democrats with selecting nominees from outside Philadelphia and Chicago respectively has finally vanished. From that we have produced Governor Ed Rendell and President Barack Obama, two of the most able Democrats in the nation. The 21st Century has brought throughout the nation a new emphasis on problem solving and ability and less of an emphasis on ideology throughout the nation. In this day and age Democrats are winning suburban voters that they lost in the 1970s and 1980s by wide margins.

But the obsession in Florida of nominating non-southeast Florida area candidates remains. Kendrick Meek’s Senate candidacy was doomed from the start among some party elites, not simply based on ideology or race but because of geography and an obsession with “swing voters:” a group prevalent in the 1990s but arguably irrelevant today. Again, Charlie Crist as a Democratic replacement for Meek wasn’t a terrible idea but Jeff Greene’s Primary race was ill advised and served to create a split in the party before the general and further a perception about Meek which was never tested electorally. Many forget Meek’s success in waging a statewide ballot initiative in 2002 regarding class size giving Democrats their only electoral victory against Jeb Bush.

The Democrats failure to manage the 2010 Senate election properly has led to the dangerously ideological yet telegenic and attractive Marco Rubio reaching the US Senate. Getting rid of Rubio will be tough if not impossible in 2016 and beyond and perhaps the only hope for the Democrats to dispose of him once and for all is if he gets appointed in a GOP Administration to a high ranking cabinet position or becomes President or Vice President himself.

In the last three Governor’s elections, the Democrats have nominated perceived moderates from increasingly conservative Hillsborough County, and in all three elections the Democrats have lost. The Democrats have avoided nominating southeast Floridians at all cost and have also managed to avoid fielding strong candidates from the Orlando area, growing rapidly and moving equally quickly into the Democratic column. Jim Davis and Alex Sink both had impeccable “moderate” credentials, that meant they were stronger up and down the I-4 corridor than let’s say a South Florida liberal like Meek or a North Florida “conservative” like Rod Smith, but neither were able to excite the base of the party enough to overcome fundamental weaknesses outside their home areas.

Democrats in Tallahassee and across the state seem to once again be playing this game. We hear about the usual suspects as statewide candidates and even former GOP Governor Charlie Crist. This is all good and well if the Democratic Party can prove it stands for something and advocates a positive policy platform. Perhaps Crist can be the answer because unlike most statewide Democrats he has in the past advocated a strong positive view of Florida and has not been shy about taking on entrenched interests such as the insurance industry. Crist’s work with Dan Gelber on Insurance issues.

Whatever the case may be in 2014, Florida’s Democrats need to become less reactive and more creative in their approach for all four statewide positions. Recruiting Charlie Crist will only solve one problem. If the Democrats continue to nominate dud candidates for other offices based on “moderate” credentials, the long-term malaise will continue. The beauty of our two party system is it fosters compromise and consensus naturally if each party adheres to a set of principles and are forced to govern together. But nominating “me too Republicans” furthers Florida’s one party status, even if the Democrats win for some offices. It is in the best interest of Florida’s citizens and the future of the state that the Democrats get their act together. That process must begin in earnest for the 2014 state election cycle.

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