With last week’s announcement that Brian Scarborough, the well-funded and and promising Democratic candidate, had dropped out of what could have been a competitive Senate election, another seat was essentially conceded to the Republicans. This has become an all too familiar pattern in the recent history of Florida legislative elections. In many cases Democrats do not even compete in the toughest situations. This is partly a bi-product of partisan gerrymandering, but also partly the fate of a party without a strong electoral strategy and a long-term vision for competing in marginally unfavorable districts. The Clay to Alachua seat that Scarborough has abandoned does perform well for the Republicans, with John McCain carrying 53% of the vote in the district. However, it is a seat that Democrats have run well at the local level and even in some statewide races. Clay County is one of the most Republican counties in the southeastern United States but Alachua is the state’s most liberal county (behind possibly Leon) outside the southeast portion of the state and to not have a clear plan B in this area is unforgivable.
The Democratic Party has been caught off guard too often with well-funded candidates in competitive districts dropping out State Senate races within a few months of qualifying. By my recollection and without doing any hard research this is the fourth time a highly touted candidate has withdrawn so late in a competitive seat since the GOP takeover of the body in 1994. While the GOP has had a few similar situations, they always have had a plan B, something the Democrats consistently lack.
Moreover, the number of GOP incumbents who have been left unopposed in Senate elections has been staggering since the late 1990s, as have allegations that the Democrats had vowed not to contest certain seats. As a minority party this is no way to shape a debate on issues and values. While the Democrats continue to believe they are somehow behaving tactically in continuing to give the Republicans minimal opposition in the vast majority of seats across the state, they are in fact doing a disservice to the state and its voters.
The Democrats are either bent on continued self destruction or have been incompetent in senate races for upwards of 20 years. It is fair enough to blame the redistricting of 2002 for the Democrats’ failures of the past decade, but prior to that the Democrats had already allowed the GOP to run rough-shot over just about every competitive district in the state, and with the exception of the 2000 election cycle when well-funded candidates were put in multiple open competitive seats, the party’s Senate strategy has been a complete failure. The 2002 redistricting did pack Democrats into a small number of districts, but it also left several seats where the GOP performance was between 50 and 53%. This was done so that the Republicans could maximize the number of seats it held in the chamber, rather than truly protecting many of its incumbents, Yet only once in the decade (Charlie Justice’s 2006 victory over Kim Berfield in an open Tampa Bay area seat previously held by Jim Sebesta and Charlie Crist) did the Democrats actually pick up a Republican-held Senate seat. The even more damming statistic is that that was the only race which the Republicans were remotely close in over the decade.
While the Democrats, under Leaders Doug Wiles, Chris Smith and Dan Gelber, continued to recruit good candidates for competitive State House seats, the upper chamber has been marked by a strategy of defeatism. Despite a new map that gives the Democrats opportunities to compete in several Republican-leaning seats, the party still does not have its act together. While it is certainly true the Republicans have institutional advantages and were rewarded by the Supreme Court for defying the will of the voters who passed the Fair Districts Constitutional Amendment, the Democrats appear to be doing the bare minimum to take advantage of changing demographics and voter attitudes in the state.
One has to wonder even if the Fair Districts Amendment had been properly enforced by the Supreme Court, would the Democrats have been able to take advantage of favorable districts. After all, recent history has taught us that if a Senate seat is remotely competitive the minority party will find a way to gift it to the Republicans.