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Anatomy of a Murder: How the Democratic Party Crashed in Florida

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  • Anatomy of a Murder: How the Democratic Party Crashed in Florida

    Anatomy of a Murder: How the Democratic Party Crashed in Florida
    Donors wanted “long-term progressive infrastructure” in the Sunshine State. It killed the Democratic party.

    I set out to write a piece about Florida and the Democratic party several months ago. I didn’t think it would be that hard. I was wrong.

    Because it’s hard to watch something you helped build get torched to the ground.

    So I decided instead to tell you a story: the political story of Florida, told by a guy who was directly in the middle of a lot of it—and an observer of all of it.

    Go ahead and pull up a bottle of whiskey, or maybe a bottle of champagne, depending on your party ID, and let’s get started.
    In the Beginning There Was Light

    First, some background on me, your humble narrator.

    I’ve worked in Florida politics for 27 years, almost by accident. It started in high school, where I was an anti-apartheid activist. In the summer of 1996, right out of college, I went to work for a hometown candidate and community leader named Doug Wiles, who was running for an open state House seat south of Jacksonville.

    At the time, the race was considered one of a handful of districts that would decide control of the Florida House, and I had no business managing a race of this importance. How green were we? We literally used a Newt Gingrich GOPAC manual that a Republican friend of Doug had given him to help guide our campaign on a day-to-day basis. (Again: We were Democrats.) We pulled off a brutally hard win for Wiles. And even though the Republicans won the majority in the chamber that night, I never looked back.

    During my first few election cycles, I was undefeated. I took on a few more campaigns each time, winning tough races in tough parts of the state. I was a pure battleground race guy, and as such, I didn’t have ideological preferences when it came to candidates. I wanted to help people who had what it took to win—candidates who understood that elections were basically a math problem. It’s not about who is right or wrong; it’s a question of who can convince 50-percent-plus-one voters to pull the lever for them.

    Like most cocky kids, I started to think that the secret sauce in that equation was me. Wrong, wrong, wrong. In 2002, I got my ass kicked. It was a bad environment for Democrats—Governor Jeb Bush won re-election by 15 points—and I didn’t do a great job managing it. But after a political beating, you can stay on the mat or you can get up. I got up and went back to basics: good candidates, good data, and relevant messaging.

    Coming out of the 2004 election cycle, we Florida Democrats hit rock bottom. John Kerry got destroyed in the state, Democrats lost the U.S. Senate race, and we ended the cycle with historical lows in both the state House and state Senate. Oh, and the state party had north of a million dollars in debt, unresolved tax liens, Florida Election Commission fines, and credit so bad that the state Ds couldn’t even get a corporate credit card.

    I started at the state Democratic party in the spring of 2005 as the director of House Victory, the arm of the party responsible for state House races. This was the job I had dreamed of for a decade. And I thought there was nowhere to go but up: When I took the job, the caucus hadn’t gained seats since 1992. How much worse could it get?

    Oh, lots.

    I took the job knowing the first $200K we raised was going to pay off a fine for some dumb mistakes from the previous cycle. What I did not know was that the party had run out of money and stopped paying bills about two weeks out from the election in 2004, leaving another $300K or so of hidden debt. If we had a good fundraising cycle, then between 15 percent and 20 percent of my entire budget would already be out the door with nothing for us to show for it except a clean balance sheet.

    Congratulations, Schale. You got your dream job.

    I used to joke to reporters in those days that “People tell us that to win more elections, we need to think outside the box. The problem is, we don’t even have a box.”

    So we set out to build one, focusing on good fundamentals. An old Democratic hand in Florida, Mike Hamby, said to me after I took the job: “Schale, there are a million things you need to do, but if you do two or three of them well, you will have done more than most.”

    And that’s what we tried to do. We had a laser focus on high-quality candidate recruitment up and down the ballot. We trained local activists on voter registration and focused our limited field budget in places where turning out a voter mattered to more than one priority (for example, a critical Congressional race and a state House race). We built a new voter file and made it available to candidates for free. We controlled the things we could control.

    We weren’t perfect, but we were objectively better. We won two statewide races and picked up seats at all levels of the ballot. Our operation set a 40-year Florida Democratic record for largest net gain of seats in a cycle: seven. That record, sadly, still stands.

    In 2008, thanks to the resources of the Obama/Biden campaign, we took those fundamentals, expanded them statewide, and built an organization. On Election Night 2008, after Florida had been called for Obama, I told the Miami Herald my hope was that the legacy of our win would be showing Democrats that we can win here.

    When I left the party job in 2009, I genuinely believed we were out of the ditch and on a better path. We’d built our box. We had a foundation. Things were trending in the right direction for Democrats in Florida.

    But right about then, a new idea was floated: standing up a donor table—or alliance, if that makes you feel better—that would operate and fund organizations outside of the party.

    This move was pitched as a supplement to the work of the state party, which would build a “long-term progressive infrastructure” that could carry on the goals of the Obama operation into the future. My concern was that the alliance would not be an add-on, but instead would end up being a replacement for the party.

    Florida Democrats sat at a fork in the road. And the decision they made then led directly to where we are today.

    It is easy for Florida Democrats to ask “What if?” about lots of pivot points over the last decade or so.

    For example, what if the national climate had been just a little better in 2010 or 2014? Or if Alex and Charlie hadn’t been outspent 3-to-1? What if James Comey had never written that letter? What if Jeff Greene hadn’t dumped $40 million in negative ads on Phil Levine and Gwen Graham (mostly Gwen) in August of 2018? Or if Andrew Gillum had pivoted back to the middle just a bit? Or even just not left $4 million in the bank because his campaign wrongly believed that they had the race in the bag?

    If any number of those moments had gone a different direction, the Democratic party in Florida would be in a different place today. No question. But to me, the biggest hinge moment came before any of that. It was in 2009, when Democrats actually thought they were headed in the right direction.

    It was April 2009, and my dear friend Dylan Sumner sent me an email. (It’s worth noting he remembers this story the same way, but in Dylan’s version, I sent him the email.)

    Dylan is another political hack who had cut his teeth in North Florida Democratic politics. He had also been a key advisor to our 2008 Obama campaign. We had worked together on more things than either of us want to admit.

    “Have you heard from this Miami donor advisor about this donor alliance?” he asked.

    I hadn’t.

    “They’re working with some donors in South Florida,” he said. “Wants to meet with me, and I think we should meet together.”

    So, we did, in a conference room about a block from the Florida Capitol, with the donor advisor and one of the lead donors.

    Neither of us knew what the meeting was about, so we both made our case: We had a ton of good staff coming out of the Obama campaign, and most of them couldn’t go to DC. For a few million bucks, we could keep a decent number of them in their ’08 roles and focus on getting ready for Alex Sink’s run for governor. Let’s build on our success, we argued.

    The donor and his advisor had a different idea. Donors didn’t have confidence in the state party, so they wanted to set up a series of outside groups that could be the basis for “long-term progressive infrastructure.”

    In a nutshell, the concept they were pitching was was simple. A group of state and national donors and Democratic-supporting organizations would pool their money and decide collectively which groups or candidates they would support, with the goal of electing Democrats and advocating for progressive policies. (It should be said that the favored policies that were often to the left of what a winning Democratic coalition in Florida would accept.) By giving money, donors got a seat at the table, and this table would operate in a manner not dissimilar to Shark Tank: supporting organizations would pitch them; they would make decisions based on these arguments. On its best day, the groups which made up the alliance would all have their own lanes and areas of expertise. That was the plan.

    But in addition to reinventing the wheel, we countered, alliance-backed groups wouldn’t be legally allowed to coordinate with the actual candidates, and also there would be no real accountability for the money. Say what you want about the party itself: At least every dollar is disclosed, every decision is public. This was not the case for the alliance.

    We also pointed out that if President Obama could trust the party, then so could the donors—that the party was little more than what the donors made it, and most importantly, we had started to build something. Something that had accountability and controls for measurable outcomes: winning elections.

    We went back and forth for a while, but it was clear we weren’t convincing them. As Dylan and I (and others) made calls, it was clear that this . . . thing . . . was happening. Our meeting, it turned out, wasn’t about consultation. It was about affirmation for a decision that had already been made.

    In fairness, their motives were good. This group of donors felt the need to assert leadership and direction, based on a model that had been built in other states. At the time, Florida’s statewide Democrats were focused on other things—and as much as I love my friends in Obamaworld, they had embraced the idea that they should build their operation at arm’s length from state parties. The alliance idea fit nicely with that model and it quickly became clear that I was lighting myself on fire by trying to stop it.

    It turned out that we were right, though: The alliance model failed Florida Democrats. In 2010, in the midst of our best opportunity to retake the Governor’s Mansion in 15 years, we ran into resistance as we tried to raise money for a party-run turnout operation. There were questions about where the money would go, and how it would be controlled. The alliance-backed organizations on the outside never materialized in a real way. And so Alex Sink, despite being vastly outspent, came within a point of being elected governor.

    Within a point. That’s 61,000 votes in the worst environment for Democrats in a century. Remember how bad the national environment was for Obama’s first midterm? It was a shellacking! And Sink had no turnout operation to speak of. Notwithstanding the historical GOP year, an Obama-style turnout operation absolutely would have won her that race.

    In 2012 the state party returned to a more traditional model, with the Obama re-election building a massive ground operation, registering voters, and turning them out in record numbers. Just like in ’08, the operation ran through a logical command and control center, and its success helped carry several down ballot candidates to wins.

    But in 2014, it was back to the alliance model, and it didn’t work this time, either. Another tough environment, another heartbreaking loss for Dems as Charlie Crist lost to Rick Scott, who entered the election as one of the most unpopular governors in the country.

    In 2018, while most of the country had a good night for Democrats, we saw two statewide losses by less than 0.5 percent. A ton of money was spent by the outside, but once again, the party-centric coordinated effort was underfunded because the donors’ alliance had functionally replaced the state party as the focus.

    In 2020, an outside organization spent over $10 million on a completely fruitless and badly conceived plan to try to take back the state House—while the Republicans were organizing on the ground, registering voters, recruiting good candidates, and playing in seats they could realistically win.

    Which led to 2022, when all the state’s Democrats’ decisions from the last decade came home to roost.
    Hurricane Ron

    What happened in 2022 was a perfect storm. A decade’s worth of decisions to intentionally defund the state party had left it an empty shell. Republicans had an incumbent governor in Ron DeSantis who was incentivized to run up the score to support his presidential ambitions. An unpopular Democratic president was facing his first midterm election. And Democratic donors were both tired of Florida and focused—rightly—on maintaining a majority in the U.S. Senate and defending key governorships.

    All the ingredients were in place for a wipeout. Which is what Florida Democrats got:
    • No statewide elected officials
    • Only 8 of 28 members of Congress
    • 12 seats out of 40 in the state Senate
    • 35 seats out of 120 in the Florida House

    Think about this: Today, Democrats in Montana have a larger share of seats in their legislative chambers than Democrats in Florida do.

    That shouldn’t be able to happen.

    Elections are determined by lots of inputs. There’s the political and economic environment. The money. The candidates, their stories, and their visions. There are external shocks and events. There’s luck. But there’s also a lot of blocking and tackling, the kind of routine, unglamorous work that political professionals do in order to maximize a campaign’s chances of success.

    Unless you’re in a very favorable race, you can’t win if the only thing you have going for you is the blocking and tackling. But by the same token, if you’re in a competitive race, trying to win without that basic blocking and tackling is asking every other factor to break your way.

    And while it’s not sexy, these routine mechanics of electioneering—the blocking and tackling of politics—are something Republicans in this state do very well on a year-round basis. This is why we have an overwhelmingly re-elected Ron DeSantis and his Free State of Florida, while my state’s Democratic party is barely hanging on life support.

    Outside groups are fine. I ran a national group in 2020 that was created to support Joe Biden. But what happened in Florida is that the outside groups—not the candidates or the party—were designated to be the primary driver of turnout, messaging, and in some cases, even candidate recruitment.

    Take one element of this: voter registration. One of the original arguments for the donor alliance in Florida was that it could fund groups with a year-round focus on voter registration. But that has been an abject failure.

    Since 2012, partisan voter registration has declined for Democrats in Florida in just about every year, and today, Republicans have a healthy advantage in this metric for the first time in state history. But this shouldn’t surprise anyone: When you outsource voter registration to these legally non-partisan organizations, they can’t engage in partisan organizing. And you know what Democrats need to do with voter registration? Find more Democrats to register.

    Again: It’s not rocket science. It’s blocking and tackling.

    Also, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The idea that Florida Democrats should sublimate themselves to a donor alliance was predicated on the belief that the Florida Democratic party itself should be weak.

    This may have served these groups well. But it has been disastrous for actual Democratic candidates. The entire model should have been flipped—building a strong party first, and using the outside groups to supplement it. But instead, we kept the party down to benefit the outside groups.

    When political parties are weak, they tend to become feckless and inept. Feckless and inept parties lose elections.

    So why did a bunch of smart people who wanted to help Democrats do something that destroyed the state party? I think the original donors worked off three assumptions that simply were not true.

    First, I know they believed their efforts would be value-added, not a replacement for party spending. But what they failed to understand is the party itself has always been a shell, and they were setting up a choice that would lead to defunding one shell (the party) for another (their alliance). When several of the traditional major donors to the party left for the alliance, that was a signal to everyone else that only one mouth should be fed.

    Second, they bought into the narrative that Obama had won by motivating a massive turnout of progressive voters—and that this wave needed to be preserved. In retrospect it’s pretty clear that Obama won for two reasons: (1) He was the best Democratic candidate in a generation and (2) Voters wanted change. Maybe this second truth wasn’t clear in 2012, but today it is: We’ve now had five consecutive change elections: 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022. American voters have been asking for change for a decade, no matter who is in charge. Obama owned “change” as a political commodity and that—not his progressive fans—is what powered his success.

    But many Democratic donors in Florida read Obama’s victories as an ideological shift in the country—one that had not happened. I believe Florida remains today what it was when Obama won it: essentially a center-right state, where Democrats (as Obama was) have to be smart in how they talk to voters. Yet many of these outside groups operate like Florida is California, pushing messaging that does little to help us broaden our general election coalition.

    Finally, they believed that Obama’s wins were proof that demographics are in fact destiny and that it was a near certainty that Florida was trending blue. This view has been demolished. Consider: Florida today is demographically far more friendly to the Obama coalition than it was in 2008 or 2012. And yet it’s definitely uphill for Democrats in 2024.

    The lesson here ought to be painful for Democrats: We didn’t lose the demographic battle—we lost the partisan organizing and persuasion battles.

    In the American political context, the primary drivers of voter engagement should be (1) the candidate and (2) the party. That’s how you win elections. Not always; not every time. But most times. Frankly here in Florida, that is the only thing that has worked.

    I don’t think if Florida Democrats had simply leaned into the 2006-2012 organizing model that my party would be dominating the state today. Some of the national reshuffling in the partisan coalitions over the last 20 years would have hit Florida even harder than most places.

    That said, had we focused on building a more sustainable party organization (as they did in Wisconsin) we would have elected at least one Democratic governor, have at least one Democratic U.S. senator, and would have substantially more Democratic state legislators and members of Congress. Of this I have zero doubt.

    Is there a pathway back for Democrats in the Sunshine State? Sure. But it requires tearing everything down to the studs and starting over, focusing on the basics: finding good candidates and speaking to the concerns of voters in a majority coalition.

    And even if Democrats can muster the will to do the painful teardown, they’ll also need the discipline to rebuild the right way: always choosing the long-term gains of voter registration, organization, and data-driven persuasion over the short-term highs of trying to win the day on Twitter.

    We’ve all seen what happens to the rump party in one-party states: The fact that they are out of contention usually leads them to become more unattractive to voters. Because clawing your way back takes time and patience and compromise while playing to the base is easy, fun, and self-actualizing.

    But national Democrats can’t afford to let Florida become a one-party state. Not if they want any margin for error in the Electoral College.

    Which is why for Democrats everywhere, The Florida Democratic problem is everyone’s problem now.

    This week, my team got a win in Jacksonville. A truly phenomenal candidate, Donna Deegan, proved you could overcome Republican spending advantages and win in a competitive political environment. The win won’t solve every problem – or potentially even any problems – but it is an important win – for morale, for donor confidence in the state, and for momentum. It is also an example that candidates and fundamentals matter.

    And to that end, hopefully it will be a spark.

    I won't be holding my breath. Florida is marching headlong into authoritarianism. It remains to be seen if Ron can make America Florida or not.
    “He was the most prodigious personification of all human inferiorities. He was an utterly incapable, unadapted, irresponsible, psychopathic personality, full of empty, infantile fantasies, but cursed with the keen intuition of a rat or a guttersnipe. He represented the shadow, the inferior part of everybody’s personality, in an overwhelming degree, and this was another reason why they fell for him.”

  • #2
    Lots of lessons to be learned for the national Dems too.

    But many Democratic donors in Florida read Obama’s victories as an ideological shift in the country—one that had not happened. I believe Florida remains today what it was when Obama won it: essentially a center-right state, where Democrats (as Obama was) have to be smart in how they talk to voters. Yet many of these outside groups operate like Florida is California, pushing messaging that does little to help us broaden our general election coalition.
    Progressives should read this over and over again.