State Rep. Anna Eskamani is one of the few stars the Democratic Party can claim in Florida, an unapologetic progressive who has handily won her seat three times in a state that is trending hard right.
But she concedes Florida Democrats are demoralized and largely irrelevant after the shellacking Republicans delivered during the 2022 midterm elections. “This is the low of the low. There really is no Democratic Party,” the 32-year-old said. She represents House District 42, which stretches from south Orlando up into Maitland.
Even Eskamani’s win came at a cost to Democrats because Republicans redistricted her into a new seat, prompting another incumbent Democrat – Joy Goff-Marcil – to run for a Florida Senate seat. She lost to Republican Jason Brodeur in the general election.
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Problems for Democrats in Florida are myriad, Eskamani said. The party is poor at raising money, has a nearly nonexistent infrastructure for registering voters and getting them to the polls and a paucity of quality, well-known candidates. Possibly worse, she went on, is that Democrats listen too much to political consultants who are paid too handsomely and offer bad advice.
One example: She recalled that the party shrugged its collective shoulders when she approached them about running for the House in 2018. She was 28 at the time and working for Planned Parenthood. The seat she was seeking was vacated by Republican Mike Miller, and establishment Democrats didn’t think she could win. Miller ran for Congress, losing to former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings.
But, if there are any lessons to be learned, they come from Eskamani’s own experience: Don’t give in. Don’t give up. Persistence pays. She raised $50,000 during her first month of campaigning and more than $420,000 from some 2,000 small donors overall. She won the seat handily.
Another lesson: Don’t back down. Vocal about her progressive values, Eskamani does not shy away from issues that seem to frighten other state Democrats. For instance, she is a frequent critic of Gov. Ron DeSantis and has championed causes such as access to safe abortions and providing relief to people struggling to meet rising rents.
During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, she worked with some 60,000 residents throughout the state – regardless of political affiliation, she said – to get them benefits from Florida’s notoriously balky and backward unemployment system. “Show up for people,” she said of her political philosophy. “We are here to serve you.”
Many of her Democratic colleagues, she added, are “super shy” about contentious votes or issues, which she blames partly on consultants who fear turning off independents. That creates its own problem: “People don’t know what you stand for. You’re not really giving a vision for the future.”
Orlando attorney and entrepreneur John Morgan, who has donated generously in the past to Democrats, agrees with Eskamani’s assessment. Even worse, Morgan said, is what Democrats in Florida are known for, thanks to labels applied by Republicans that have stuck: defunding police, being soft on immigration, socialism and “wokeness” (an ill-defined catch-all pejorative to conservatives).
Democrats “serve it up on a silver platter,” said Morgan, who largely funded and led successful amendments to the Florida Constitution that raised the minimum wage to $15 and allowed medical marijuana.
Republicans, Morgan went on, also have been adept at scaring voters into thinking that Democrats are out to take away economic prosperity and cultural identity from middle class and blue collar workers. “What’s ours is ours and you’re not getting any of it,” he said, paraphrasing the ethos of Republicans, especially those who support former President Donald Trump.
Republicans routed races in Florida last cycle
Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat who lost his metropolitan Orlando seat last year after redistricting to Republican Susan Plasencia, said his party is so broken that it is incapable of completing even basic tasks. That would include fundamentals such as making phone calls for candidates or driving voters to the polls.
“It has obvious consequences,” he said. “We have to inspire voters, a new generation.” Smith said having former Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist lose by 19 points to DeSantis hurt all down-ballot Democrats, a group that included himself: “It was a toxic environment.”
In the end, Republicans dominated, retaining the Governor’s Mansion, taking all three Florida Cabinet positions and staking supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Even former Democratic strongholds such as Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties trended Republican, while long-time red redoubts like The Villages in Central Florida continued growing in numbers and political clout.
“We’re moving strongly right,” said Evan Power, the Republican Party of Florida’s chair of county chairs. “The people of Florida appreciate the conservative policies that are being implemented.”
The wipeout was so complete that Manny Diaz, the state’s Democratic Party chair, abruptly resigned. He told reporters he was unable to build a strong year-round organization because the national party offered no help.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, a Democrat and the city’s longest serving mayor at 21 years, said Democrats consistently lose the “ground game” to Republicans by failing to get their voters to show up at the polls. Though Republicans have a small advantage over Democrats in registered voters – at 36% to 34%, according to state voter rolls – Dyer maintains there are more than enough no-party-affiliated voters, or independents as they are called, for his party to win again. But only “if you energize them,” he added.
Path forward murky for future Democratic success
And that seems to be the No. 1 quandary for Democrats. How do you get voters to enthusiastically back a perennial loser? For his part, Morgan is not so sure it is possible anymore in Florida. He says Republicans are moving to and clumping together in Florida, much as Democrats do in California and New York.
Dyer pointed out that even in Florida, Democrats seem to be concentrated in certain areas such as Orlando and Tampa, leaving large swaths – the Panhandle and The Villages, in particular – to Republicans. A superstar such as Democratic former President Barack Obama could turn Florida again, Morgan said, but candidates like Obama are rare.
For her part, Eskamani is willing to fight an uphill battle in the Legislature, at least for now. “I’m where I need to be,” she said.
But the future may hold a different path for Eskamani, a doctoral student in public affairs at the University of Central Florida who also works full time at NEO Philanthropy. She intends to run one more time for the House before she is term-limited out of office. Then she might launch a bid for mayor of Orlando because Dyer has indicated he could retire if he wins one last four-year term this fall.
“I think Orlando could use some really fresh leadership … some fresh perspective,” she said, alluding to the long-standing City Council members who might move to replace Dyer.
As for the future of the state Democratic Party? What does it need to be relevant again?
“The playbook is there,” Eskamani said, referring to the machine Republicans have built in Florida and the tactics they have successfully employed. “We just need to do the work.”
Dan Tracy was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel for 35 years, covering numerous beats including transportation, City Hall, state and local politics, business and long-term projects, and is an expert on the Central Florida scene.