Tuesday’s election results in Florida affirmed what many local political experts have known for a long time: The state has slipped out of Democrats’ reach.
Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis cruised to reelection by a margin of nearly 20 points, and he is now being discussed as a top 2024 presidential contender. Republicans won two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. If Republicans take the US House, it will be in no small part because Florida Republicans gave them four more seats. DeSantis gerrymandered the state to ensure the GOP would dominate House races, and it did. State Republicans do not claim to be moderates, instead going out of their way to affirm their MAGA ties. For the first time in modern history, there will be no statewide elected Democrat in Florida.
Florida went red in 2020, with Trump improving on his margin from 2016 against Hillary Clinton. There’s been a rightward shift among Hispanic voters in the state, particularly in the Cuban and Venezuelan communities around the once-Democratic stronghold of Miami. And the Republican Party apparatus in Florida has ballooned during the Trump years as the former president made his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach the “Winter White House.”
“If I put all of that into a bag and shake it up, I’m not pulling out the word ‘battleground,’” said Sean Shaw, a former Democratic member of the statehouse and 2018 nominee for Florida attorney general. “I think we are, right now, a red state or at least leaning-pretty-heavily red.”
Democrats aren’t particularly hopeful that they’ll be able to make Florida a true battleground state again anytime soon. But at the very least, they hope to contain any GOP gains in 2024.
“We want to make it an outlier. It’s just an outlier,” Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, told Vox.
What went wrong for Democrats in Florida
Democrats couldn’t even hold the line Tuesday in traditionally blue Miami-Dade County. Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Attorney General Ashley Moody all won in the county, and three of the four congressional seats there went to Republicans. Even when Clinton lost the state in 2016, she still won Miami-Dade by about 30 points, and former President Barack Obama carried it by almost 24 percentage points in 2012.
“The fact that Republicans have won the largest county, expanded their reach all over the state — it’s huge. It’s a recipe for disaster for the Democratic Party. They don’t have a way to win Florida without Miami-Dade,” said Kevin Cabrera, former Florida state director for Trump’s 2020 campaign and a newly elected member of the Miami-Dade County Commission.
Republicans claim Democrats in Florida have fallen on their own sword by pursuing what they falsely characterize as “socialist” policies that aren’t resonating with voters in the state. Cabrera cited Democrats’ Covid-19 shutdowns and vaccine mandates, high taxation, and “not allowing parents to have a choice regarding their children’s education,” referencing heated battles over the degree to which LGBTQ issues and racism can be discussed in schools.
In reality, Floridians’ perception of Democrats may have less to do with Democrats’ policies, and more to do with extremely successful Republican messaging. The GOP has actively sought to make the “socialist” label stick. In 2020, Trump ran Spanish-language ads likening Biden to ruthless Latin American dictators like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Nicolás Maduro, trying to capitalize on the fears of Latinos whose families immigrated to escape failed socialist regimes. And disinformation campaigns permeated Florida Latinos’ WhatsApp chats, Facebook feeds, and radio programs.
“The fastest growing group of voters in Florida are Hispanics, and Hispanics, by and large, who are coming from countries fleeing socialism, fleeing all sorts of these leftist crazy ideas. And they’re not coming to Florida to get more of that,” Cabrera said.
Democrats have found it hard to fight back against that perception created by Republicans. For one, Shaw thinks that they haven’t had enough of a tailored message to Florida Hispanics explaining what economic policies the party is for. Democrats, Shaw said, need to focus on talking about economic mobility, small businesses, having good jobs, and growing wealth.
The Florida Democratic political machine is also in disarray. When Miami’s former mayor, Democrat Manny Diaz, assumed the position of state party chair following the 2020 election, he told NPR that the party was in “survival” mode, facing a pile of debt and bills. Even staffers’ health insurance had lapsed. Nearly two years later, the state party is still rebuilding.
Democrats remain under-resourced in Florida — trailing Republicans by about $170 million in fundraising across the four non-federal statewide races this year — and the returns on Tuesday night reflect that. But Shaw isn’t sure whether national Democrats are better off spending their money in Florida than in other states, given how successful they were in other parts of the country: “It’s clear that we were abandoned and that’s part of the reason that what happened happened. We’ll know in the future whether that was smart or not,” he said.
The politics may be too far gone in Florida for Democratic investment to be worthwhile. At this point, Republican lawmakers are winning by running so far to the right that they’re “trying to out-Texas Texas,” Shaw said. Earlier this year, for example, Republicans in the state legislature passed their “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prevents teachers from talking about LGBTQ+ issues or people, and a bill banning transgender women and girls from participating in school sports. DeSantis grabbed national headlines after he sent migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in an effort to score political points against the Biden administration’s border policies.
Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson said on Twitter that Florida’s political transformation didn’t happen overnight, or even under the purview of Trump or DeSantis. “What the fuck did you THINK would happen? …Florida was and has been a red state for a generation; blue wins were largely just statistical noise, certainly at the statewide level,” he said. And it’s true the last Democrat to win a gubernatorial race there was Gov. Kenneth Hood Mackay back in 1998.
If Democrats want to claw back power in Florida, it will be an incremental process. The party will need to find the right message, reach persuadable voters, become better organized, and raise a lot more money. But it can start with investments in registration and organizing, Shaw said.
“We had a turnout problem,” Shaw said. “You have got to go in these communities and organize and hold these coalitions together and talk to people and knock on the doors. And once we get some other money, do some other things.”
Christian Paz contributed reporting.