When the South Florida blues turned red hot

How the Democrats lost Miami-Dade.

Crowd members react during the Republican Party of Miami Dade County GOP Victory Rally at Renaissance Ballrooms in West Miami, on Oct. 19, 2022. 

Crowd members react during the Republican Party of Miami Dade County GOP Victory Rally at Renaissance Ballrooms in West Miami, on Oct. 19, 2022.  Photo by Bryan Cereijo for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Florida Republicans’ red wave crash-landed squarely onto Miami-Dade County – and those in the know say anyone paying attention could have seen it coming.

People across party lines agree Florida Democrats failed in the county in 2022, even as Republicans built upon improvements they made over the last several election cycles. The result has created a GOP infrastructure that Democrats, without adequate national support, seem ill-equipped to handle again in 2024. Republican dominance in the county was evident up and down the ballot: 

– Gov. Ron DeSantis thrashed Democratic challenger Charlie Crist by 11 points in Miami-Dade this year after getting only about 39% support in the county in the 2018 general election. 

– Every Republican who ran against a Democrat for a seat in the state House or Senate won. 

– Miami-Dade’s school board, which oversees the fourth largest public school system in the country, now has a conservative majority. 

– Conservatives made gains on the county commission, turning a blue body into a decidedly purple one.

The shift is unlike anything that has happened in the county for decades. The last time a Republican governor won a majority in Miami-Dade came in 2002, when Jeb Bush received about 53%. 

After rising Democratic turnout in the state during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections won by Barack Obama, pundits and consultants projected that the area would remain a blue stronghold for generations. But experts say a lack of stable local party infrastructure, combined with an evaporation of money from national Democrats as well as messaging mistakes, are what paved the way for Miami-Dade’s Republican resurgence.

Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University, said the Democrats’ lack of organization in registering voters in Miami-Dade and the drying up of national funding from their party left candidates reliant on “personality driven” volunteering, which is not enough to combat an organized party structure. 

“People helped (Democrats) because they liked candidates like Val Demings, not because they liked the Florida Democratic Party,” Foreman said. “It's what Democrats were supposed to be better at: Reaching diverse neighborhoods, motivating people to vote to bring about social change. But none of that happened.”

Ongoing losses can further erode a political organization’s relevance. For political observers inside and out of South Florida, the question now is whether local Democrats will recognize that they’re trapped in a time loop – that because they can't recognize and fix the problems of their past, they’re doomed to repeat them over and over. 

Republicans, Democrats and academics alike agree that this shift didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of consistent efforts by the GOP to build infrastructure in the county and to make inroads with voters. Meanwhile, Democrats fell short in its own efforts to register voters and effectively spread their message.

The clearest evidence of this is voter registration. While Democrats still lead Republicans in the county among registered voters by over 130,000 – 575,768 to 445,427 – they have been shedding voters since 2018 as GOP ranks have grown. The number of Miami-Dade Democrats has decreased by about 25,000 registered voters since DeSantis was first elected; Republicans gained almost 67,000 in those four years. 

Most of the gains have come among Hispanic voters, with over 52,000 in Miami-Dade  registering to join the GOP since 2018, while the number of Hispanics registered as Democrats went down. Registered Republicans now make up over 36% of Hispanic Miami-Dade voters, compared to about 27% of Democrats.

Kevin Cabrera, a newly elected Miami-Dade county commissioner who previously worked as Florida state director for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, said part of that shift is due to Republicans not stopping voter registration and outreach efforts after winning the state in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, including in Miami-Dade. He said the Republican National Committee kept offices open year-round in the county with people who focused on local political issues, counter to the practice of gearing up only when the midterms are around the corner.

“With Republicans, the difference is that they have a permanent presence on the ground in these communities and they're hiring people that are representative of these communities,” Cabrera said. “They're not hiring somebody from a different state that's going to parachute in and attempt to understand the community. They're hiring folks that have been working in these communities, and that are representative of these communities, and have been working there for years.”

Juan Cuba, the chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party from 2016 to 2018, said his party has failed to create similar infrastructure building off Obama’s success in the state in 2008 and 2012. “Trump’s campaign did not leave South Florida in 2016,” he said. “Democrats didn’t do the hard work over the years and now it is catching up to them.”

The lack of organization came as national Democrats remained uninterested in spending money on Florida races. Organizations like the Democratic Governors Association did not throw any money behind Florida candidates, while national Democratic political committees invested only a little over $1.3 million into Florida races this cycle, compared to nearly $59 million in 2018.

DeSantis, on the other hand, was a fundraising juggernaut, breaking national gubernatorial fundraising records on his way to an over $200 million war chest. He also dominated national and state media with his COVID-19 politics and contentious culture war fights. Evan Power, the chair of chairs of the Republican Party of Florida who is currently running for party chair, said the governor’s top-of-ticket pull and valuing of voter registration efforts made the difference in Miami-Dade and across the state. He said the governor’s stance during the coronavirus pandemic – opposing mask and vaccine mandates in a “macho” message “of risk-taking and courage,” as The Atlantic put it – was able to win over voters in Miami-Dade who were sick of lockdowns.

“The governor gave freedom to these people by letting them exist in COVID. In that area (Miami-Dade), the ability to get out, work, earn a living and operate freely made them more Republican and more happy to go out and vote for the governor,” Power added. 

Foreman said the county’s reliance on the hospitality industry and tourism made DeSantis’ approach to the pandemic popular, and Republicans were able to capitalize on it. We really can't underestimate the importance to some voters of keeping schools and businesses open,” he said. “During the height of the pandemic, as controversial as it was, it was important for businesses, particularly in Miami-Dade County. I think for some people, they remembered that when it came time to vote.” 

While Republicans focused on getting voters registered, the Florida Democratic Party put their money – what little they spent – into efforts that ultimately didn’t pan out. “Blue Shift Florida,” a $15 million voter registration effort, launched in May but failed to achieve its goals of boosting voter registration and turnout. Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Miami, blasted the Blue Shift push as “mostly smoke and mirrors.” 

In his Little Havana apartment, Kennedy and his four roommates, all registered Democrat roommates with different voting frequencies, had nobody knock on their door or receive any mail from the state party, a coordinated campaign or from any U.S. House or state races. “There was no real significant voter registration effort on behalf of Democrats in the state of Florida or Miami-Dade. They may say that there was, but they just didn't do it effectively and the proof is in the pudding,” Kennedy said. “We are in one of the most competitive areas statewide and we didn't get a door knock.”

The lack of ground game sapped the Democrats’ ability to combat GOP messaging. Cuba said it allowed conservatives to shift the conversation to culture war issues, and allowed no oxygen for matters like medical marijuana expansion, restoration of felons’ voting rights, a living wage and other policies Democrats champion. “Having that ground game infrastructure is critical for getting your messaging out,” Cuba said. “If you don’t have that operation, you can’t take (your) message directly to voters.”

One Republican strategy particularly effective at currying favor with Spanish-speaking voters was comparing Democrats to socialists. Prominent Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, carried that message right up to Election Day and have been using it against Democrats in South Florida for the past several election cycles. Cabrera said voters that have fled from or are descendants of people who fled socialist-run South American and Caribbean countries are not likely to get behind Florida Democrats. “They're coming to Florida and they're not buying what the Democrats are selling. All these sorts of leftist, socialist policies clearly don't work,” he said. 

Foreman said that although calling Democrats socialists and communists is often disingenuous, it is evident that the strategy works for Republicans, and Florida Democrats haven’t figured out how to counter it. “That's a big failure of Democrats to not address that head-on. It lingered,” he said. “It seeped into the public perception and that is a losing side to be on in Miami-Dade.”

The red wave handed Miami-Dade Republicans influence or outright control over several bodies of local governance for the first time in recent memory. The Miami-Dade School Board’s new Republican majority makes it the largest conservative-controlled school board in the country and the crown jewel in Florida Republicans’ and DeSantis’ push to win school board races statewide. 

The effects of the victory can already be seen. The school board now has conservative leadership to match its conservative majority. A push to ban all flags from schools except the American flag and the Florida seal is hitting their agenda this month. The success in flipping school boards like Miami-Dade’s red is unprecedented, Foreman said. “That's an example of how the real grassroots efforts on the Republican side paid off,” he said. “And it's because it was hooked to a message that they cared about: parental control in schools.”

The Miami-Dade County Commission has also grown more red, with the officially nonpartisan board having a 7-6 Democratic-favored makeup after the last election. Cabrera said the shift brings more voices to the commission, but will not be disruptive in a body where partisan politics is usually not as important. “I think there's a good group of folks and we will get along fairly well, regardless of party affiliation,” he said. “And there's a lot of things we agree on, such as making sure our law enforcement has the necessary resources and trying to be fiscally responsible. At the county commission level, it's interesting in that we go across party lines.”

With a pullout of national funds and the lackluster results of the past election, Florida Democrats are in a tailspin. There has been private talk among insiders about ousting Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz and conversations about the messaging direction of the party. Power said the national funding from the Obama years have left the Democratic structure reliant on those dollars and unable to right the ship against DeSantis’ current.

“The Democrats have benefited from essentially a sugar high from national investment,” Power said. “You take that away, and people are not happy with Democrats. I think that the lack of national investment hurts them, but it's actually a more accurate reflection of where we are on the ground.” The likelihood of dumping out that national piggy bank for Florida Democrats is slim, especially after the results of the 2020 and 2022 elections. With Joe Biden finding a path to the presidency without Florida, Cuba is skeptical that national donors will bring their dollars to Florida for 2024.

“We cannot depend on national money and donors. We need to look to one another and say that no one is coming to save us, we have to do the work ourselves,” he said. For that to happen, Kennedy – who has publicly pushed for Diaz’s ouster – said the party leadership needs to change and new blood needs to focus on building party structure, not hiring outside consultant groups to do the work. “All political parties are filled with grifters,” he said. “The problem is that, in the Florida Democratic Party, it's the same grifters that keep on losing.”

Cabrera is skeptical of Democrats’ ability to keep themselves from continuing to lose, either in Miami-Dade or across the state. “Florida is no longer a swing state,” he said. “We've clearly transitioned into being a red state. Other states should seek to follow Florida's guidance on trying to find their way out of some of these crazy, failed policies of the left.”

Cuba is still convinced that Miami-Dade can turn blue again. “The results of this last cycle just show that Democrats need to invest in their infrastructure and need to be more disciplined with their messaging,” he said, “and we can be successful in 2024 if we do both of those things.”

Contact Tristan Wood at twood@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on Twitter: @TristanDWood

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