Florida’s Democrats have never really recovered from the malaise of the mid 1990s. It was in three short election cycles that the Democrats went from a large majority in the Florida House to a super minority. It was between 1994 and 1999 that the number of Democrats fell from 71 to 45 in the chamber, with almost one fourth of the entire body flipping from D to R. It was ironically at the very same time that Florida became, for the first time in modern history, a competitive battleground state on the national level ending years of GOP domination on the Presidential level.
While the theory of partisan realignment has been used as a convenient excuse by Florida Democrats for the last fifteen years, the reality is Republican numbers in the State House changed little between the early 1970s and early 1990s. During that period Florida was usually a landslide victory for Republican Presidential candidates. Unlike other southern states the GOP started with a base known as the Republican horseshoe running from Naples up through the I-4 corridor and back down south to Fort Lauderdale. The Democrats were dominant north of Ocala and in Miami, but the GOP started with a strong electoral base. Yet as the GOP began to make inroads both in North Florida and Miami, portions of east central Florida and southeast Florida began to swing the opposite direction, keeping the partisan balance of the legislature roughly the same for twenty years.
In 1994, despite Governor Lawton Chiles come from behind close-shave election victory over Jeb Bush, the Democrats began bleeding seats outside southeast Florida. The reality was that Chiles’ margin of victory of over 200,000 votes in liberal Broward County meant he had lost the rest of the state by 140,000 votes and Bush’s coattails had a strong effect in other areas. Seats flipped in the Tampa Bay area, Orlando and Volusia County. When the dust settled, the Democrats were under 65 seats for the first time in the post reconstruction era, having lost a net of eight seats on election night and holding a slender 63-57 majority. While the GOP tried to convince a few North Florida legislators to switch parties, they were unsuccessful. In fact in the 1994-1996 term, the only party switcher in the Legislature was W.D. Childers, a Pensacola Senator first elected to Reuben Askew’s former seat who would later go to jail.
The telling thing about 1994 is that unlike previous bad Democratic years, legislative seats had generally swung in local issues and the local popularity of incumbents. But 1994 was different. When the liberal Steve Pajic lost the Governorship by ten points to Bob Martinez, the Democrats lost a number of State Senate seats (setting the GOP up to capture the body several years before taking the House) but had no impact on State House elections. Even as Republicans carried the state by big majorities in the 1980, 1984 and 1988 Presidential elections, the Democrats lost on net very few House seats during the decade. While there was the occasional party switcher or Republican upset, Democrats in Florida managed to insulate themselves from the difficulties of the national party during this time.
In 1996 the race for the House was on. The Democrats were given a somewhat unexpected boost by the efforts on the national party to win Florida for Bill Clinton. In the previous four Presidential elections the Democratic nominee had never gotten more than 39% in the state. In fact, the Democrats had only carried the state twice since Harry Truman ran for reelection in 1948. Florida was the first southern state to move reliably into the GOP column on the Presidential level and by targeting the state so heavily in 1996, the Democrats were acknowledging that there had been radical demographic shifts.
Despite this help, the Democrats lost the State House by the thinnest of margins. The party had been, in fairness, unlucky. The four seat flip towards the GOP were all in areas carried by Republican nominee Bob Dole. Two of the seats that flipped in Polk County did so after popular Democratic incumbents decided not to seek reelection late in the cycle. The victorious Republicans in these two seats, Paula Dockery and Adam Putnam would go on to become significant statewide figures over the next decade and a half.
The Democrats’ defeat had come inspite of Bill Clinton carrying the state. But on the surface a 61-59 spread in the House (this would grow to 66-54 after four party switches and a shocking special election defeat in a very Democratic urban Tampa district) would not be difficult to overturn if the FDP was organized. But a combination of self inflicted wounds such as the Willie Logan debacle, failure to stop party switching, growing party disloyalty to the Chiles/MacKay administration (Legislative Democrats had theorized that they needed to move to the middle politically to be successful, a theme that would continue into the 2000s and leave the Democrats in a super minority status) and an incredible inability to recruit candidates to take on Republicans in more marginal seats led to electoral disaster in November 1998. In some seats that were previously held by Democrats the party did not even field an opponent or threw on the ballot candidates without any funding or local political base. When the dust settled the Republicans entered the 1999 Legislative Session with 73 House members out of the 120 in the chamber. To this day the Democrats have yet to recover, despite ebbs and flows which have left the GOP between 72 and 84 members for the past fourteen years.
The Democrats continued laundry list of excuses for the imbalanced legislative partisan breakdown have no bearing in reality. What happened in the 1990s was that the Democrats tossed away major institutional advantages and favorable district lines through party infighting, indiscipline, arrogance and a lack of understanding of how the state was changing. At the same time the Republicans were building a strong statewide infrastructure and confidence at the local level. The GOP took a long term view of building a permanent majority, and have dominated legislative elections since. When you consider the strength of the national Democratic ticket in Florida since 1996, we are arguably the most under-performing state in the union at the legislative and Governor/Cabinet level.