It’s hard to imagine how the elections just past could have gone worse for Florida Democrats. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis was re-elected by 19 points. The GOP-controlled Legislature owns a two-thirds majority in both chambers. There’s not much the Democrats can do except an autopsy — and it’s focusing on one group in particular: Black voters.
Former Democratic state Senator Dwight Bullard points out that although DeSantis won by a bigger margin this year than in 2018, he actually had fewer votes. Bullard says his party could have done better by talking more about the pocketbook issues where people are hurting.
“I’ve talked to a multitude of Floridians, but black Floridians in particular, who are talking about the notion that their rent has gone up $600 or more,” Bullard said. “I need somebody to talk about that, right? How are you going to help me with that?”
Those pocketbook issues matter to all Floridians, but to Black voters, they’re especially important, says Sen. Shevrin Jones, who is now one of just two Black state senators.
“First off, Black people are not a monolith,” Jones said. “Because they believe this is our dedicated group of people. And so there’s no need or us to engage them. Matter of fact, we can go and engage them three months before the election, or six months before the election. But I think we walked into a ‘mess around and find out’ situation.”
In August, DeSantis announced the arrests of several formerly incarcerated people for voter fraud because they cast ballots in the 2020 elections despite having a disqualifying felony. Most of the people arrested are Black. And they say they were told they could vote by state officials. Bullard believes those arrests alone have had a chilling effect on Black voter turnout.
“Unfortunately the story that’s not being told enough…the idea that the DeSantis Administration both gives you the green light to vote as a returning citizen, and then has the audacity to then slap your hand when you’ve done something that they had a complete hand in making sure you were able to do,” he said. “For lack of a better term, it’s diabolical.”
Florida’s newly redrawn state legislative and congressional districts also favor Republicans. The governor pushed changes that eliminated a prominent Black voting district in North Florida.
Then there was the money, says Steve Schale, a longtime Democratic strategist. DeSantis collected close to $200 million.
“I love Charlie Crist to death, but you know, they didn’t have an actual campaign,” Schale said. “I suspect when the numbers are all said and done, that Charlie Crist probably in the general election spent less money in the entire 9 or 10 weeks of the general election than DeSantis spent in any one of the one weeks of the election.”
Given time, those problems might have solutions. But whose interests are Florida Democrats really fighting for? Representative Anna Eskamani, Democrat of Orlando, believes Democrats’ overall silence on economic issues was the biggest mistake.
“And I think where Democrats continuously struggle is that we self-center ourselves to meet the needs of corporate consultants and donors,” said Eskamani. “Whether it’s the rising cost of rent or utilities or property insurance or the need for clean air and clean water, these are all issues that intersect with actions by corporate America.”
The Democrats cave to those corporate interests, she says.
“And Democrats are often silent in championing these issues because they don’t to want to irritate their corporate donors and potentially lose that source of financial backing,” said Eskamani. “And if we’re to continue to self-center ourselves and bend over backwards to serve corporate actors versus constituents, then we’re going to see the same outcomes time and time again.”
Jones agrees, and says Democrats have to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time. And they have to be present in the communities that form their base of support.
“Blacks in communities have made it clear that you have to give me something to vote for,” he said. “Don’t tell me how bad something is, without moving the needle in my community.”
So far Florida Democrats are crying and licking their wounds. The true test of their character will be whether they can get back up again.