Death of a swing state: How Florida lost its purple and embraced its red
The Democrats wanted a blue Tuesday in the Sunshine State. But they 'didn’t show up, they didn’t invest in the state, and it showed,' one expert said.
A week before the midterms, President Joe Biden said Democratic candidate for governor nominee Charlie Crist was running against “Donald Trump incarnate” in incumbent Ron DeSantis. It proved to be the wrong metaphor. As Tuesday’s results rolled in, Crist must have felt like he was swept up in a red tsunami that enveloped Florida’s peninsula.
Crist didn’t surpass 40% of the vote, while the governor cleared an almost 20-point margin of victory – the largest in a gubernatorial race since 1982, when then-Gov. Bob Graham won reelection by more than 29 points. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio had a similar victory over Democrat Val Demings, winning by over 16 points.
Those margins are likely giving Democrat’s nightmares, but their real horror should be their performance in traditionally competitive or outright blue counties. Miami-Dade went to DeSantis by over 11 points after Biden won the county by 7% in 2020. DeSantis also won Hillsborough and Duval by about 9 and 12 points respectively, after Biden won both counties two years ago.
This top-of-ticket dominance made its impact felt down-ballot as well. Florida Republicans picked up even more seats in the state House and Senate, enough to secure a more than ⅔ supermajority in both chambers. The GOP also picked up four more seats in the U.S. House.
The majority of polling projected a DeSantis victory – but few by this much. Some conservative commentators, like Fox & Friends’ Ainsley Earhardt, said that Florida is now solidly red. Republican consultants and political experts have agreed that the election’s results show how dominant the GOP is in the state currently, but pumped the brakes on declaring Florida no longer a swing state.
Jennifer Ungru, a Republican consultant and director of government affairs at Dean Mead, told City & State that voter enthusiasm – not convincing or converting undecided voters – is what led to large margins of Republican victory. “People are getting more and more focused on their viewpoint of the world. Voters are showing up because they believe that it matters, or they’re not showing up,” she said.
She said Florida’s statewide voter registration is still close enough to keep it in play for Democrats in the future, but the state party lacked the structure and top-of-ticket candidate quality to put up a fight this year. While Democrats have been able to win the state, as with Obama in 2008 and 2012, Ungru said Democrats were not able to build the party infrastructure from that success, nor find a state-level candidate that can energize their voters like Obama did for Democratic voters nationally.
“It is slipping away (from Florida Democrats), and it'll continue to slip away unless they make some real changes that (include) both finding candidate(s) that people are excited about and putting in the boring work to build a party. They're missing both pieces, and Republicans have both,” Ungru said.
It seemed national Democrats also weren’t enthusiastic about prospects in the Sunshine State this election cycle either. In an email blast sent out before election results rolled in, Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz pointed out that national Democratic political committees only invested a little over $1.3 million into Florida races, compared to nearly $59 million in 2018.
Charles Zelden, a political science professor at Nova Southeastern University, said Democrats from elsewhere chose to spend their money elsewhere, such as in competitive Senate races in Pennsylvania and Georgia. The close results there, Zelden said, showed they made the right call.
“The reality is Florida was already a red state, but it was a red state on a knife edge. The Democrats didn’t show up, they didn’t invest in the state, and it showed,” Zelden said. Pennsylvania and Georgia “are now the states on the razor’s edge.”
Zelden added that their middling turnout in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties could spell doom for Florida Democrats for years to come. They need to win those counties by double digits to have any shot at victory in a statewide election. “The structural changes in the vote in South Florida are explosive. I don’t see Democrats winning Florida for quite a while, and that includes presidential elections,” he said.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said the underperformance in South Florida can be tied to Hispanic voters shifting their support to Republicans. In exit polls, DeSantis was ahead with Latinos in the state by 13 points. Jewett said Democratic messaging during this election cycle, primarily on abortion and LGTBQ issues, is likely not going to energize Latino voters enough to flip them back toward supporting Democrats.
“I'm not saying they need to abandon their more progressive principles on some social issues, but those issues are not going to be what wins (Hispanic voters) back,” Jewett said. “The emphasis has to be on bread-and-butter economic issues to try to show they are on the side of middle and working class voters.”
Jewett contends that despite this year’s results and the string of election cycle victories by Florida Republicans, all it would take is a national candidate that can motivate Democrats to make Florida competitive again. He pointed to Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, who went to Democrats for several years in a row until Donald Trump flipped the states in 2016, as an example of what it would take for Florida to flip.
“I would just caution that it's a little too early to know for sure what will happen in future presidential election cycles,” Jewett said. But for Florida Republicans, having a figure this election cycle like DeSantis helped races up and down the ballot across the state, said Anthony Pedicini, a Republican consultant who helped run several successful state and local campaigns this cycle.
“Last night was a murder-suicide. Ron DeSantis murdered the Democrats as they committed suicide on themselves,” Pedicini said. “As Republicans, we saw it coming. We did everything we could to expand our field of candidates across the state, local and statewide to make sure that we capitalized on gains that the governor was able to give us with his coattails.”
He said Democrats have been unable to adapt their strategy in the state, despite losing elections year after year for the last several cycles. “Every year they bring the same failed ideas and the same failed policies back to the campaign circuit, and we just look at them like they're crazy. It's almost like they can't read a poll,” he said.
However, he still believes Florida can be a swing state, and Florida’s Republican elected officials must stick to the issues they campaigned on to ensure Florida's red wave keeps rolling into elections in the years to come.
“We cannot rest on our laurels. We can't do a victory lap,” he said. “If they focus and deliver on the things they ran on, then they deserve to be reelected. What we can't do is what the Democrats do: start pointing fingers, start passing crazy things. We’ve got to focus on the things that matter to people and deliver on them and we will continue to be successful in electing Republicans in Florida.”
Contact Tristan Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @TristanDWood
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