Since 1998, with only a few exceptions, we have heard nothing but excuses from Democratic legislative leaders explaining the poor numbers for the party in both legislative bodies. As we have consistently pointed out on this website these excuses wore thin about a decade ago but continue to be in circulation. The question then has to be how serious are the Democrats about actually winning back either chamber? While reaching 61 House seats and 21 Senate seats may seem nearly impossible, reaching 50 House seats and 17 Senate seats should be an attainable goal. Yet the Democrats have gotten nowhere near these numbers since the 1998 election carnage.
Redistricting and other institutional advantages for the Republicans can be overcome with good organization, real effort on the local level and an understanding of how Democrats held marginal or even Republican-leaning seats throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Redistricting may be a convenient excuse for the Democrats but the inability, or perhaps simply the unwillingness, to recruit strong candidates that are able to simply gain the votes that Republicans do towards the top of the ticket.
Our research indicates that in the newly passed Florida House districts that will be in effect from 2012 to 2022, Barrack Obama won 54 seats in the 2008 election. Obama ran between 48% and 50% of the two party vote in fifteen additional districts, bringing the potential attainable Democratic number to 69 House seats. But Democrats, unlike the GOP, suffer from significant drop-off down ballot. In the 2000 election Al Gore carried 17 Florida State House districts that were won that very same day by Republicans. Conversely, the Democrats won just 5 seats carried that same day by George W. Bush. The swing between Gore and Bush districts was GOP plus 12 and they left that election cycle with a 77-43 majority in the House.
The leadership of the Legislative wing, Democratic Party in Florida has continued to make excuses for woeful electoral performances, the failure to properly target areas with changing demographics, the inability to turn Democrats out in off year elections and the failure to educate Democrats why they should keep voting in down ballot races. But the Tallahassee-based Democratic legislative leadership, much of it isolated from major changes to the electorate in Central and Southern Florida, continue to misfire on possible targets and where the Democrats can gain a foothold in current Republican held areas.
In the 1980’s Democrats used local issues to buck national trends and keep many Republican trending areas in the D column. Throughout that decade and into the early 1990s, the GOP took an incremental approach, building strong local parties with a network of statewide leaders that were tuned into local developments and ready to pounce in any district with a retiring or vulnerable Democrat. In time, the GOP turned the tables of the Democratic legislative hegemony and have continued to build an infrastructure that thanks to Democratic incompetence, renders the registration and party preference advantage the D’s have in the state meaningless.
Instead of challenging the Republicans or mimicking their approach, many Democrats have become complacent, ready to fight one another over scraps, and worse yet accepting a permanent Democratic minority. Rod Smith wisely challenged the GOP’s attempts to gerrymander legislative seats in both the courts and via the state’s media outlets. But unlike Smith, many Democratic officeholders, operatives and activists seem perfectly comfortable to sit with folded hands and retain “insider” status while the Republican hold on an increasingly Democratic state tightens.
Why are some Democrats so willing to accept this fate? Perhaps it is down to the people in power: those making the decisions for the past decade plus. Maybe it is a lack of understanding of how the state has changed politically. It could even be a denial of reality, a failure to appreciate and understand President Obama’s 2008 electoral legacy in the state and the awesome infrastructure his campaign utilized to turn out Florida voters. Or it could simply be a combination of comfort, complacency and sheer laziness.