President Obama is scheduled to visit Fort Myers today. That’s right Lee County, where I have been warned in the past I will wake up sleeping Republicans if I campaign for statewide Democrats there. But southwest Florida is growing at a remarkable rate and ignoring these counties is a huge potential mistake.
The Obama Campaign has broken the lid off all of the preconceived notions Democrats have about different parts of the state. Minimizing Republican margins of victory in core GOP counties is the key to winning statewide elections. This is done by articulating a progressive message that turns out liberals in these counties who normally have no candidates to vote for on the local or legislative levels. This strategy has been employed in the reverse by the GOP who consistently set up field ops in Democratic areas to maximize the turnout of die in the wool conservatives who can help offset the margins statewide.
As Florida’s Democrats prepare for the 2014 state election cycle, they must emulate and mimic the successful Obama strategies of 2008 and 2012 to reach out beyond the core Democratic counties and work to cut GOP margins in Lee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Collie counties.
Below is the text of an article I wrote about SW Florida in early May.
Christine Jennings learned the hard way what has been ongoing since the early 1970s in southwest Florida. The political infrastructure and machinery of southwest Florida is almost impossible to overcome for a Democrat in a close race. I myself learned this lesson when the Gore Campaign sent me to Lee County during the 2000 recount. Election officials, local commissioners and other political interests are almost always partisan in that part of the state.No part of Florida with a large, growing population has proven to be more reliably Republican than this region. Robust growth largely from the Midwest has spurred Collier, Lee, and Charlotte counties from sleepy retirement communities to a vibrant metropolitan area. Yet as this evolution has taken place, the area’s Republican bent has continued and even further solidified.
For years the Democrats could count on winning an urban Fort Myers State House seat and a Charlotte County seat as well. But Vernon Peeples was defeated by Lindsay Harrington in 1996, permanently flipping both that seat and the chamber into Republican hands, and in 1998 the Democrats failed to hold Keith Arnold’s urban Fort Myers seat by a narrow margin and have not been close to regaining it, with one exception, since. The Democrats have not held a Senate seat based in Collier, Charlotte or Lee Counties (the old Tom Rossin and Dave Aronberg seat contained more voters in Palm Beach County than in Lee) since the late 1980s.
Sarasota has since the early 1990s been more moderate than the rest of the region, but it still trends Republican and is controlled by the GOP, albeit those of a more moderate persuasion. The Democrats have had electoral successes locally and have come close to greater success on a few occasions including Jennings controversial “defeat” in the 2006 Congressional District 13 race. The area has developed a more moderate outlook on social issues, and the arts are well supported in the area. Sarasota is truly an interesting and creative place: a unique city by Florida standards. The surrounding areas of Venice, Englewood and to the north, Bradenton, are filled with lots of Midwestern retirees but also younger families who care about education and basic services. On a whole, the Sarasota/Bradenton metropolitan area while Republican is less intimidating for Democrats than the areas further south, and recent demographic changes indicate a trend towards the Democrats.
Like the areas further south, Sarasota and Manatee counties have been bad electoral territory for local Democrats, but unlike the areas further south Democrats towards the top of the ticket have been performing better of late. In 2006 Christine Jennings carried Sarasota county by almost 7,000 votes. Vern Buchanan had years of advertising for his car dealerships which made his name better known, but Jennings ran a strong issue oriented campaign and would have won the election if not for major ballot irregularities. In 2008 Obama came within 220 votes of carrying the county. Manatee has not shifted yet electorally but the demographic trends locally, with more young families moving into the area from outside the Midwest indicate that a shift may begin to occur.
Further south, Charlotte County gave McCain a narrower margin than expected in 2008. Lee County remains tough territory for Democrats but the type of new resident in Cape Coral and Estero in particular that we are seeing tend to be less conservative than the established population in the area. More and more transplants from the Northeast are moving to Lee County, making it in all likelihood less monolithic Republican into the future.
Collier County remains one of the most Republican large counties in the southeast (over 250,000 population) and the new residents to the Naples area continue to prefer Republicans by a wide margin.
While Republicans are still likely to win the vast majority of southwest Florida districts over the next decade, demographic shifts and increased population mean the Democrats cannot continue to ignore this region. When trying to build a statewide majority it is imperative that the Democrats organize and work to cut the GOP margins in counties like Manatee, Lee and Charlotte. The raw population of these areas means the Democrats must engage and place resources in the area.