Several theories about the way to revive Democratic fortunes have been tossed about throughout the state for the past fifteen years, and most that have been implemented have been either half measures or have fallen flat. During the 2002 election cycle I had the good fortune of being the Field Director for the Florida Democratic Party’s effort, working with local DECs. This effort was based around the I-4 corridor and surrounding counties, and in my mind ten years later still holds the key to reviving the Democratic Party on the state level.
Florida’s Democrats have lost 13 of the past 14 elections for statewide (non-federal) office. This is a record which is comparable to that of rock solid Republican states like Utah and Idaho and worse over the same period as traditional GOP strongholds like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Arizona. It is logical and perhaps admirably pragmatic that elements within a desperate party that has failed to properly train or promote a “farm team,” would turn to a proven statewide vote getter such as Charlie Crist to try and regain a foothold at the highest level. But even if Governor Crist runs as a Democrat and wins, it does little to solve the problems the party has as a viable statewide force.
Many Tallahassee-based lobbyists have overstated the importance of north Florida counties in the possible revival of the party. While it is true that the leakage of legislative seats in the Big Bend and Panhandle areas has been dramatic, little can be done realistically to change the fortunes in that region. More importantly, that region does not have enough voters to really turn the tables in statewide elections or in tipping the legislative balance of power. Even if the Democrats carried every county between the Suwanee and Apalachicola Rivers, every election the GOP has won for statewide office since 2000, they still would have won, with the possible exception of Alex Sink’s defeat in the 2010 Governor’s Race.
We have also heard from the party’s southeast Florida base that maximizing turnout in Broward and Palm Beach Counties would make all the difference statewide. While there is some truth to the theory that more Democratic votes can be squeezed out of these two liberal metropolitan counties, both are already performing very well for Democrats and basing any statewide strategy around the two counties is difficult. What is important is that the party structures in both counties become more organized and less beset by factionalism.
The other theory is that the I-4 corridor decides statewide elections. This is by and large true but often times the emphasis on this analysis focuses exclusively on Orlando and Tampa Bay area counties. The reality is statewide elections have consistently been decided in the favor of the GOP by the the continuing underperfomance of Democratic candidates in non-metropolitan medium-sized counties that represent a large portion of the statewide electorate.
The most important counties in the state, it can be argued, are Brevard, Pasco, St Lucie, Sarasota, Volusia, Hernando and Polk. With the exception of traditionally Republican Sarasota, these are counties where the Democratic infrastructure has been eroded to a certain extent, but counties where the local party structure has remained solid and areas where developing a real farm team of local candidates and activists should be intensified with the backing of financial muscle.
Party building requires, like any building, a solid foundation. In politics foundations are built of people – be they registered voters, party activists, eager candidates or motivated donors. Building the foundation necessary to begin and sustain a long-term resurgence of the Democratic Party requires creating a new backbone at the local level of committed activists, potential candidates, and major fund-raisers.
With this core group of believers who share core values, while at the same time incorporating that most democratic of notions inclusiveness, we can begin to build the essential “Farm Team” of local elected officials, and lay the groundwork for a successful campaign operation statewide in the medium sized counties.
It is these counties, with proper financing, that can turn the state around. With support and guidance from local activists these are the places that can provide the foundation and resurgence of the Democratic Party in Florida at all levels. Local elected officials have the most contact with the average voter and are therefore the primary point of contact between Party, its statewide candidates and the voter.