Florida Democrats could injure themselves from all the patting on each others backs they have been doing the past two weeks. You would think based on the self congratulatory nature of Florida Democratic commentary since Election Day we saw a massive sea change on November 6th.
The reality is that the Democrats in the State Legislature picked up a total of three seats that were not directly influenced by the “Fair Districts” Amendment that many activists claim had not worked. Furthermore, Florida’s Democrats left almost a dozen pick-up opportunities presented by Fair Districts on the table with poor targeting and even poorer allocation of resources.
Mike Clelland, Carl Zimmerman and Jose Rodriguez’s victories on November 6th were pure pick-ups in districts that favored Republicans and had not been substantially altered by reapportionment. For those three victories, Florida’s Democrats deserve maximum credit.
But the victories in HD-30 (Kathy Castor-Dentel), HD-49 (Joe Saunders) HD-63 (Mark Danish), and HD-84 (Larry Lee) owed themselves to a redrawn lines forced by the 2010 Fair Districts Amendment. The same can be said for Darren Soto and Maria Sachs’ Senate wins. Without Fair Districts it is unlikely the Democrats would have picked up any of these seats, and in some cases, notably Danish’s, the campaign was run by the candidate and volunteers achieving victory inspite of state party indifference. For that victory, Mark Danish himself and not the FDP deserve full marks.
Moreover, the opportunities presented by Fair Districts were not taken advantage of by the Democrats. We are not quite sure how House Victory arrived at the specific districts they chose to target this election cycle. If one thing was fairly obvious it was that several good pickup opportunities that were obvious to outsiders were not exploited. Take HD-59 for example, a seat where the Democrats had a good candidate in Gail Gottlieb who was well connected and had a decent fundraising base. The district voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and has been trending more Democratic. Yet little effort was made in this seat. Look at HD-114 and HD-115 in Miami-Dade County where Ross Hancock and Jeffery “Doc” Solomon ran as self-recruited Democratic nominees. In both seats Alex Sink ran AHEAD of Obama’s 2008 total and this year that trend continued with Obama running stronger than Sink had. Hancock was an exceptionally good candidate knocking on doors for months and almost upset Erik Fresen, the ethically challenged Republican incumbent, despite being outspent 20-1.
What happened in HD-21? A seat where Fair Districts did make a clear impact and the Democrats targeted this seat yet they got behind the wrong candidate in the primary (Aaron Bosshardt) and then only gave tepid/inconsistent support to Andrew Morey in the general. Rep. Keith Perry’s victory was avoidable and this is a seat that needs to be targeted heavily in 2014. Even more stunning was that the Flagler County based HD-24 didn’t end up on anyone’s target list. Democratic nominee Milisssa Holland could have used party help in Volusia and St John’s County where she lost badly offsetting her big lead in the district’s heart, Flagler.
What about HD 41? This was a seat where Karen Cooper Welzel, an excellent candidate who activated the labor base of the Democratic party in Polk County. Cooper Denzel ran a savvy grassroots oriented campaign that could have been successful with minimal party involvement. John Wood, a leading Republican, was thrown into a tough district, a seat that Obama and Nelson were always going to run strongly in, yet the FDP showed no interest in targeting him. Wood survived 51.5%-48.5% despite outspending Cooper-Welzel 14-1.
HD-72 was a district where Democrats could have easily competed against Rep. Ray Pilon. The Sarasota area seat has been a yo-yo district since the early 1990s and has seen many close partisan battles. Yet Democrats chose to walk away from this seat entirely leaving Liz Alpert, a previous two time losing House candidate in Hillsborough County, to fend for herself.
The Democrats managed to bungle other opportunities as well. HD-85, HD-89, and HD-93 were all made more Democratic by Fair Districts yet candidate recruitment was either a debacle or avoided all together in these three adjoining seats. The party’s efforts in Pinellas County were boosted by Dwight Dudley in HD-68, a great candidate with a fantastic campaign, but the other three targeted central/southern Pinellas seats all had one issue after another.
The loss of HD-120 was particularly painful. This seat continues to lean Democratic but in fairness to the FDP, Obama ran weaker than expected in the Keys, and outgoing Democratic “Leader” Ron Saunders did not do the party any favors here. A tough loss no doubt, but we’ll give the party a pass on this one.
Overall, the cycle was good for Democrats but should have been much better. While the Senate maps are clearly still a partisan gerrymander, the House maps are not, despite how much Florida Democrats jump up and down claiming it is. Florida’s House Republicans drew a fair map, conforming with the constitutions and giving the Democrats access to over 60 seats and a potential majority. Republicans retreated to rely on large money advantages and the control of big lobby groups to hold seats where they are at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, the Democrats decision making and poor targeting helped the GOP in this effort.