Florida, once known as the perennial swing state, has been unexpectedly flipped by Republicans in the 2022 elections. Instead of the hyper-competitive races Floridians are used to, Ron DeSantis cruised to reelection, easily dispatching challenger Charlie Crist, securing a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature and consolidating his position as a rising conservative star. So what’s behind this change? Has Florida truly become as red as it seems and, most importantly, what’s got Floridians saying “In Ron we trust?”
While Democrats across the Union defied midterm history and held the majority in the U.S. Senate — though they still lost the House — Florida was the one glaring exception. Unlike in the rest of the country, Republicans not only held their own but got to revel in their near-obliteration of the left in the state, unofficially making Democrats an endangered species on the peninsula.
Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection by a staggering 19 points, a far cry from when he won by less than half a percentage point in 2018. Regarding the Floridian delegation to the federal government, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio was reelected by a similar margin against former Democratic Rep. Val Demings, and Republicans flipped four House seats. Most surprisingly, however, was how Republicans captured a supermajority in both chambers of the Legislature, and no Democrat won a statewide office for the first time since Reconstruction.
The loss was so big that Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Díaz — who got the job partly to appeal to South Floridians, especially Cubans — stepped down after only two years, continuing the track-record of unstable FDP leadership. This came as a sharp turnaround in Díaz’s rhetoric who, four days after the elections, responded in a written statement to internal pressure to step down that he would “refuse to give up when the going gets tough.” As party leadership elections will be held in February, this means the FDP is effectively leaderless for the time being.
As party leader, Díaz hoped to unite Floridian Democrats, a goal he admits he did not achieve.
“However, we cannot win elections if we continue to rely on voter registration to drive turnout, build field operations only around elections, and expect to get our vote out without engaging voters where they live; listening to them and earning their trust — helping everyday people with their everyday problems,” said Díaz in his resignation letter.
In the letter, Díaz acknowledged he fell short on addressing these issues, but heavily implied his party was responsible for most of the failures.
“Instead, I found obstacles to securing the resources and a long-standing, systemic and deeply entrenched culture resistant to change; one where individual agendas are more important than team; where self-interest dominates and bureaucracies focus on self-preservation,” said Díaz.
As of the time of writing, the party’s website has not been updated to reflect the new reality, with 2022 candidate profiles still on the homepage and Nikki Fried listed as Commissioner of Agriculture, an office she resigned from to run for governor before losing in the primary. Only four candidates are in the running for FDP chair now: Fried, former Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo — who suffered defeat against María Elvira Salazar for Florida’s 27th U.S. congressional district — Broward County Democratic Party Chair Rick Hoye and Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida chair Carolina Ampudia. Alex Berrios, a West Palm Beach organizer, dropped out on Feb. 15 before endorsing Fried.
While this change in the political landscape may seem sudden, it was a long-time coming. While a Republican-friendly environment did not help Democrats, most of their woes have been self-inflicted. Democrats enjoyed a voter registration advantage numbering in the hundreds of thousands before Republicans changed the tide and gained a 257 thousand voter lead in 2021, meaning there were now more registered Republicans than Democrats for the first time in history. This is due not just in part to FDP stopping voter registration during the pandemic — the Republican Party of Florida did no such thing, instead adding over 553 thousand voters to rolls since 2018 — but overall disorganization and treating on-the-ground efforts like voter registration and volunteering as afterthoughts.
Beyond this, Democrats failed in both candidate quality and rallying behind a single, coherent message, which resulted in a lack of voter turnout from their base. UM junior and biology major Olivia Martínez, for example, did not vote.
“I didn’t even vote. I should have,” said Martínez.
Democrats spent most of their time criticizing Republicans and, while rebuttals of the opposition is always a given, they failed to sell their own vision for Florida to constituents. As for candidate quality, In These Times opinion piece, “How to Fix the Pathetic Florida Democratic Party” by Hamilton Nolan regrets the selection of moderate Democrats like former police chief Demings and former Republican and Gov. Crist. There were also issues with Naomi Blemur, who ran for Commissioner of Agriculture and was embroiled in scandals for not only recent homophobic tweets but also because she had no relevant experience; this led to several withdrawn and withheld endorsements.
All these issues, combined with a heavily lopsided financial battlefield — DeSantis raised $200 million and Crist only $31 million, compared to DeSantis’ $58 million and Andrew Gillum’s $55 million in 2018 — brewed to form the inevitable: Republicans would take home the whole stadium.
So, has Florida truly become the Republican stronghold some are painting it as? Well, maybe. Democrats lost control of Florida’s Senate for the first time in 1995, the House of Representative in 1997, and the governorship in 1999, none of which they have managed to reclaim a single time since. Despite this, Democrats still held a sizable minority, several statewide offices and many Supreme Court justices.
None of that is true today. Nowadays, Democrats rely upon the only moderate justice on the bench, Crist-appointed 70-year-old Jorge Labarga, who is nearing the mandatory retirement age of 75. While Democrats remained competitive even decades after losing control of Florida’s government, part of that was due to attention from the national party, which at the time thought it could still flip the state. George W. Bush infamously won Florida, and therefore the presidency, by 537 votes after a massive electoral controversy in 2000, and former President Barack Obama won the state twice on his paths to the White House in 2008 and 2016.
This attention from the national party would soon die off after making gains in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, making Democrats realize they don’t need Florida to control the federal government. And while abandonment by the national party stings, FDP’s issues are largely the consequences of their own actions finally catching up to them, as they were relying upon the life support granted to them by the nationals and did not take the time to organize properly. The result is that since 2002, Republicans have won 30 statewide elections, while Democrats have won six.
Even Republicans acknowledge the internal chaos of FDP.
“They’re not addressing issues that really matter to folks, and so they really need a whole course correction and a big overhaul,” said DeSantis.
Be it politicking or genuine pessimism about the state of his opponent’s party, he predicted they would not fix their issues.
“I don’t think they’re going to do it because I think the incentives are to continue to do what they’re doing on an individual basis and so they can sort all that out,” said DeSantis.
Where to Go Now
Notwithstanding such dismal results, many leftists are still unwilling to call Florida a red state and believe there’s still a path to victory, but only if they act immediately.
FDP campus organizer Betsy Mullins repeated many of the aforementioned failures of her party as points to improve upon, but also outlined some concrete steps she thinks FDP should take.
“I would have the party have year-round work in communities to build a strong support basis so they will have a head start when election season rolls around and have people eager to help, volunteer and get the word out,” said Mullins.
“Political climates and opinions are constantly swaying, and we never know what will be the most important issue by the next election cycle,” said Mullins, stressing that Democrats are still a viable party.
Similarly, UM sophomore and political science major Riley Simon, who is also president of the school’s Young & College Democrats, is worried about the new supermajority in the Floridian government but refuses to throw in the towel.
“I think we just need to work together in a better manner. Hopefully we can pull it together in time for 2024,” said Simon.
On the other side of the aisle, Floridian Republicans had everything to celebrate, and are firm in their belief that they just secured the Union’s largest and most famous swing state along with its 30 electoral votes — and they are not without reason. With their newfound voter registration advantage, reshaping of the educational system, legislative supermajority, a friendly Supreme Court, the double-digit thrashings of Crist and Demings and a governor who could realistically become the first Floridian president in history, it could hardly get any better.
That being said, RPOF is keeping its eye on the ball and will not soften the pressure on FDP anytime soon. Republicans are keenly aware that, while nonthreatening now, Democrats could regroup and start regaining ground in future cycles. After all, nearly 150 years of Democratic power is nothing to dismiss, especially when their opponents have only just gotten rid of them.
Andrés Escandón, committeeman for district 28 of the Republican Executive Committee in Miami-Dade County and former office manager for the Hispanic Engagement Office in Miami, echoes such sentiments.
“The goal for Republicans is to keep the state red long-term, a product of policy implementation and voter engagement. Policy-wise, the GOP should keep building DeSantis’ conservative record, especially when it comes to parental rights, protecting unborn children, and safeguarding our elections,” said Escandón. “The RNC and the Republican parties of Florida and Miami-Dade should keep working intensively in grassroots efforts to reach as many voters as possible.”
Escandón also credits DeSantis’ policy wins as the principal reason for the red wave in Florida, stating that “Floridians were grateful for what he had done in his first term, mainly because he let them work in 2020,” referring to the governor’s aversion to lockdown measures during the pandemic. He also cites the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) mobilization efforts as a significant boon, especially in South Florida.
“The RNC did a fantastic job engaging voters, especially in South Florida. For instance, they had a Hispanic Engagement Office in Miami and a Jewish Engagement Office in Boca Ratón for the past election cycle. Those ethnic-specific offices were beneficial to register voters, answering their questions about the then-upcoming elections, and holding events with elected officials,” said Escandón.
The fall of the Floridian Democrat brings to mind Hemingway’s famous quote regarding his bankruptcy: “Gradually, then suddenly.” And though they finally hit rock bottom, there is still time to get back up — but only if they do so now.
words_matt jiménez. photo_nina d’agostini. design_lizzie kristal.
This article was published in Distraction’s Spring 2023 print issue.