Throughout the 1980s many Democrats held what amounted to safe legislative seats. With no term limits and overwhelming advantages of incumbency, many Democrats voted to the left of their constituents on key economic issues while towing a more moderate line on hot button social issues. Democrats survived for a long time where they shouldn’t have. Republicans though began a disciplined multiple year approach to turning the state around.
The Republicans began running candidates in these seats even without hopes of winning. The knew incumbents eventually retire, and seats eventually come open one way or another (this was before term limits). At the time Democrats were comfortable in their majority. Comfort bordering on arrogance, as many opportunities to grow the party, reach out to new voters and blood let new leaders was passed up in favor of a business as usual approach.
Democrats often faced the very same Republican candidates in multiple elections, performing worse as time went on. Eventually the Democrats arrogance which led to a poor top down organization and enforcement of the voting rights act as applied to legislative districts spelled the end of Democratic legislative hegemony.
Since the GOP takeover of the legislature the Democrats have won the majority of votes in three of four Presidential elections in Florida (after losing nine of the previous eleven presidential elections in the state ) and significant portions of the urban and suburban landscape have changed in the state. These demographic changes have in most cases favored a shift towards the Democrats.
But Florida’s Democrats have been reluctant to learn from history. They have deemphasized the issues that matter to most Floridians while clinging to a 1980s model on issues and campaign methods. They have done little to mimic the tactics of the Republicans who were able to pick up a total of 36 House seats(almost a quarter of the entire body) and 9 Senate seats between 1992 and 2002.
The Democrats failure is even more appalling when you consider that in the term limits era, legislative seats a open at a minimum once a decade. That certainly wasn’t the case when the GOP chipped away at the Democratic majority. So many of the Republican candidates who eventually became legislators were initially sent on suicide missions against sitting Democratic incumbents. But by running a campaign, finding their voice on issues, and learning how to raise money they became more potent candidates when the opportunity to win actually arose.
The Republicans worked to move beyond their base of seats in southwest Florida,the Space Coast and on the Treasure Coast, pushing aggressively into the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas and eventually entirely flipping Miami-Dade County, whose emerging Cuban-American electorate had been viewed with arrogant contempt by state Democratic party leaders.
The state as a whole is more Democratic today than it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Republican horseshoe has been broken up with patches of blue throughout Central Florida. But Florida’s Democrats seem reluctant to embrace the tactics of the opposition that worked so well against them in the 1980s and 1990s. The Democrats have not learned the recent history of elections in is state, or worse yet haven’t even bothered to study its history.
Until the Democrats fully analyze the mistakes of the past and the success of the opposition, change will be elusive.