Here's what Florida Democrats can learn from Virginia

Here's what Florida Democrats can learn from Virginia
Matt Gaetz image viaWikipedia.

Growing up in rural Virginia in the early 1980s, I had a difficult time adjusting to my community, as many of my neighbors were xenophobic and racist. I had hoped my hometown would eventually evolve to become more tolerant and progressive, but after waiting for so many years, I gave up. I thought it would forever be a conservative wasteland and decided to leave.


In 1992, I traveled through Florida to visit a friend in Miami. I was impressed with the diverse communities and culture I found—at least in the central and southern portions—and knew immediately that Florida would be a better fit for me. The people seemed welcoming, and at the time, the state was completely under Democratic control. Eventually I moved here, and lived happily ever after.

Except I didn’t. Turns out, I should have stayed in Virginia.

Starting in the mid-90s, Democrats began to lose Florida, and we never stopped. Fast forward to today, and we’ve lost every statewide office but one, as well as every branch of government. Under complete right-wing rule, Florida now seems less like a bastion of diversity and progressivism than it does a conservative meth lab. Thanks to two decades of Republicanism, we are now the second worst state for economic inequality, with GOP politicians giving everything to ultrawealthy residents at the expense of everyone else. Four out of every 10 households in Florida can’t meet their most basic needs. Our schools are among the worst in the nation, and our teachers are now among the lowest-paid.

The low standard of living and poverty wages have helped fuel a bitter populace, and many despicable people (Joe Gruters, Matt Gaetz, Dennis Baxley, et al.) used racist rhetoric to fan the flames of hatred in their climb to power. In 2018, while the rest of the nation repudiated Trump’s brand of bigotry, Florida elected a blatantly racist governor. Today, Florida is associated more with its violent extremism than with its diversity, as both hate groups and hate crimes have proliferated across the state.

Under Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, our state devolved even more, as we allowed the National Rifle Association to write our laws. This includes the infamous Stand Your Ground law, which shifted the burden to the state to prove a killer in a shooting death did not shoot in self-defense. This law is ripe for interpretation by racists, like George Zimmerman and Michael Drejka, as a free license to kill unarmed people of color and escape prosecution (or in Drejka’s case, try to) by claiming a perceived threat.

Speaking of gun violence, the Florida NRA not only blocked all gun control legislation, but was successful in repealing all gun laws in Florida. Florida now leads the nation in the number of mass shootings. I could go on. This is not the progressive paradise I believed it was 25 years ago.

Ironically, it wasn’t that long ago that Virginia was also staring into the abyss. As recently as 2015, Republicans enjoyed a supermajority in my former home: Of 100 seats in the General Assembly, the GOP held 67. Yet in four short years, Virginia Democrats would go on to control the trifecta of state government. Voting rights, gun safety, and healthcare protections are all on the horizon. It’s a great time to be a Virginian. So what the heck happened?

Yes, demographics played a role. Asian communities sprang up all over Northern Virginia, and my rustic, redneck hometown now has Indian markets next to Korean churches. And yes, Trump did make people in the suburbs run screaming from the GOP. Yet the media’s focus on just these two areas ignores the greater truths: Florida has always had much larger and more diverse immigrant communities, and Florida has way more suburbs than Virginia. Yet Virginia has fair representation of its political divide, while here in Florida, although Democrats outnumber Republicans, our government looks more like Mississippi’s.

There are lessons in this transformation. Florida Democrats can only do so much about the constant voter suppression and GOP gerrymandering, but there are plenty of things we could learn from Old Dominion Democrats.

1. Go outside our comfort zones

The first thing Democrats here in Florida need to do is to expand our reach outside of the condensed blue areas of our state. This seems like a no-brainer, but this runs counter to the Florida Democratic plan, which hasn’t significantly changed in 20 years. We focus heavily on cities and their nearby suburban communities, where the majority of voters are, and hope for the best. This can work, but only when you have massive turnout in those areas.

Focusing primarily on our turnout while ceding the red zones to the GOP may have worked well when Barack Obama was on the ballot, but even Steve Schale, director of Obama’s first successful Florida campaign, said that this is not a wise strategy. Long-term investments in pink and red counties can make a dent in Republican dominance in those areas, and they will be critical for victory in 2020. Schale correctly points out that Florida will be lost again if red counties, like Pasco County, are allowed to drive up 50,000 vote margins.

It can be done. Look at Virginia: Just a few years ago, as one candidate put it, the rural western region was written off as hopeless by the state Democratic Party. That started changing in 2015, thanks to the work of several groups. One such group, 90 for 90, was organized by lawmakers and the Chesterfield County Democrats to register voters, encourage voter participation, and recruit candidates outside of the Democratic strongholds. Another initiative, started by Sen. Tim Kaine in 2017, banded multiple rural candidates together to pool resources, share consultants, and create operational support for campaigns across the rural districts. One of these candidates was Daily Kos’ own Beverly Harrison. Although she lost her election, Harrison found success in her work on the successful state campaign to get Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

The goal was to build relationships within rural areas, and identify and focus on issues those communities care about, like broadband access and farming. The renewed care that the Virginia Democrats showed these neglected areas paid dividends right away: The GOP suddenly realized that it could no longer rely on these areas it had formerly depended on to retain its majority.

2. Outreach in immigrant communities, and not just during election season 

The second failure of Florida Democrats is the one that is probably most infuriating to me. Florida Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo summed it up perfectly: “I’m sick and tired of being the only Democrat who shows up at Nicaraguan events, Venezuelan events. You can’t just show up in campaign mode; you’ve got to be present all the time.”

Many Florida Democrats believe—incorrectly—that hatred of Donald Trump’s policies and the Republican Party’s demonstrated bigotry are enough to ensure turnout from the Sunshine State’s various Latin American and Caribbean communities. They aren’t. Even more infuriating is that Florida Republicans do what Florida Democrats should be doing: show up. Republican officials, candidates, and surrogates visit these communities to do outreach all year long. They speak at churches in Latin American communities, where they try to tie Democrats to repressive socialist leaders in Venezuela and Nicaragua. They speak at Puerto Rican outreach efforts, where they imply that they support Puerto Rican statehood, which is a baldfaced lie.

The Koch brothers’ “Libre Initiative”, which falsely claims to be a “non-partisan, non-profit grassroots organization,” sponsors community events with the goal of  producing more Republican voters. This group swarmed migrants from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria’s destruction. The Democrats didn’t even bring up Puerto Rico at the last presidential debate—held in Florida!

During his campaign for Senate last year, then-Gov. Rick Scott pulled a complete 180 and suddenly became Puerto Rico’s best friend. He distanced himself from Donald Trump, had the territory’s (now disgraced) lieutenant governor introduce him at rallies, and heavily advertised in Spanish-speaking markets. The Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson, only launched a Spanish-language website and hired someone to focus on Latino outreach after reporters asked why he didn’t feel it was necessary. Although Democrats still won the Latino vote, support dropped from 62% in 2016 to 54% in 2018.

Rick Scott also aggressively campaigned in Caribbean communities that Democrats also take for granted. The Haitian American population in South Florida has grown to over 300,000 strong, expanding their political clout. Scott appeared at a major Haitian American religious event, the Haitian Evangelical Crusade, in Greenacres, Florida; he ran ads in Haitian Creole. Never mind that Rick Scott strongly supports a president who called Haiti a “shithole.” All any of the Florida Democratic candidates had to do was make an effort—at least show up. They didn’t, and we lost every major race by razor-thin margins.

Contrast this with the new East Asian and Indian immigrants in Virginia. The situation there was reversed: The Virginia GOP had a tremendous opportunity to get a foothold in these immigrant communities, as these voters spoke positively about the GOP’s rhetoric on taxes and on family values. Yet the Virginia Republicans made very little effort to reach out and counter Trump’s constant, vile attacks on immigrants. That got noticed.

It was the Virginia Democrats who welcomed them, visited year-round, and listened to their needs. They didn’t just assume that immigrant communities would fall in line behind Democrats because of Trump’s hatred. It’s as if the Florida Republicans and the Virginia Democrats are following the same playbook, and it’s working for both. In Virginia, immigrant communities turned out in droves and helped Democrats capture the trifecta.

3. Every race deserves a candidate

Finally, and you’ll notice all of these things tie together, Virginia Democrats made a commitment to serve everyone and compete everywhere. In 2015, Virginia Democrats only ran 23 challengers in the General Assembly, essentially giving Republicans a pass for 44 seats. In 2017, they challenged 54 seats and picked up 15. Finally, in 2019, Democrats challenged 43 of the 51 GOP seats, picking up six and gaining the majority. In other words, they expanded their map, and it made a difference.

Even if a candidate loses, we still win when Democrats are inspired to show up to vote for them.

Back in Florida, Andrew Gillum lost his 2018 race for governor to Republican Ron DeSantis by under 30,000 votes. Bill Nelson lost his race for Senate by under 10,000 votes out of 8.2 million cast, making this the third consecutive election that Rick Scott won by less than .01% of the vote. Investing a little bit of time and effort into campaigns that weren’t sure things could have driven up the numbers just enough for both of them to win.

Investing in long-shot candidates in red areas means funding campaigns to canvass the neglected parts of Florida and talk with voters, some of whom may never hear about the Democratic agenda beyond what Fox News makes up. These candidates and their supporters go door to door, which is much more effective than blowing money on ineffective television ads in expensive media markets.

In Virginia, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, put money and resources into multiple races, even where it was not obvious that they could win. It does not seem to be targeting as many races in Florida this year as it could. Therefore, we have to do our part by supporting all of the excellent candidates running in Florida’s red districts in 2020.

Take a look:

  • Phil Ehr vs. Matt Gaetz: Even a deeply red district like CD-1 has been embarrassed by the shenanigans of Matt Gaetz. The uber-entitled rich kid has repeatedly embarrassed the district and the state. Compare that hot mess with his opponent, a 26-year Naval combat veteran who had a remarkable rise from the junior enlisted ranks to commander. Ehr is highly educated and a proven expert on international relations, having provided strategic advice to senior leaders in both Washington and London.
  • Margaret Good vs. Vern Buchanan: Vern Buchanan is ranked by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington as one of the most corrupt members of Congress, with despicable stories of blackmail and bribery. Alternatively, Margaret Good is another Daily Kos alumnus. She won a legislative district in a special election in 2018, the first campaign I wrote about that year. She didn’t receive much support from the party at that time because the 16th was a heavily Republican district, but after her victory, that dynamic changed. The DCCC has targeted this race, and wants a winner.
  • Donna Deegan vs. John Rutherford: In the 4th District, Deegan is a well-known news anchor in Jacksonville. An award-winning journalist and cancer survivor, she was inspired to run to fight against Republicans’ attacks on insurance coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions, as well as their efforts to cut funding to Medicare and Medicaid. Rutherford is a dyed-in-the-wool Trumper who can be counted on to carry out Trump’s agenda.
  • Adam Hattersley vs. Ross Spano: Hattersley is a rising star in the party. He won a Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Navy during the Iraq War. He’s an engineer and runs a very successful marketing business. In 2018, he won the 59th, a red-leaning state House district. Hattersley’s opponent is Ross Spano, who is currently under investigation by the Justice Department for receiving improper loans in excess of federal campaign contribution limits. The DCCC is targeting this race.
  • Dana Cottrell vs. Dan Webster:  Dana is running in the 11th, a district that contains The Villages, probably the most right-wing community in the nation. Dana Cottrell is a schoolteacher who taught the children of military personnel stationed overseas, and she faces off against one of Trump’s most loyal congressmen. Even though this is a solid red district, a victory here is not impossible. Cottrell knows the district, and the district knows her well. She has won over some GOP voters, and is trying to add more to a coalition of independents and Democrats in the area. Even if she falls short, her campaign is giving left-leaning voters in this populous district a strong reason to show up on Election Day.

Democratic presidential candidates will be barnstorming across Florida the next few months. I invite them to support and endorse local Democratic congressional and legislative candidates. Let local candidates speak at the presidential candidates’ rallies. It costs nothing, but will give great exposure to their campaigns and coverage in local press. By supporting down the ticket, our presidential candidates don’t just help the local candidate’s campaign—they also help their own by ensuring turnout in the district.

Every race needs to be contested, at every level. If there is no one running in your area, you do it! There are many resources available. The filing deadline is in April. If you do decide to run for something, please let me know in the comments. I’ll even help. There is no such thing as a pointless run. You’ll get your message out, you’ll give your neighbors an option, and even if you lose, the voters you bring out might make the difference in defeating Trump. I seem to recall an election not too long ago where 531 votes in Florida awarded the presidency. Fight for every last person.

Even if you are in a deep-red district, you are building a foundation for a future victory. It might seem hopeless now, but things do change. My hometown in Virginia is unrecognizable compared with what it was when I left, and after more than 20 years of living in what I thought was a paradise, I’d give just about anything to go back home.

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