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        Florida Democrats: What happened, why it did, and where to move forward | Opinion

        Florida Democrats had a bad night Tuesday, losing five state House seats and two open state Senate seats, not to mention Trump winning the state. What happened?
        Florida Democrats had a bad night Tuesday, losing five state House seats and two open state Senate seats, not to mention Trump winning the state. What happened?

        On election night, somewhere between Miami-Dade County losing two incumbent Democratic congresswomen, the Florida House losing five Democrats and Florida getting called for President Trump, progressive Central Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani blasted on Twitter, “I’m saying it now. We need a whole new direction for the Florida Democratic Party. We are losing too many incredible down-ballot elected officials and candidates right now and it’s not OK. I know we have the potential to be better and do better.”

        But does the state Democratic party have the potential? And what does doing better look like? What made a once-purple swing state turn so Republican red, even as other battlegrounds split down the middle, with just enough tilt to seemingly throw an incumbent Republican president out of office?

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        Eskamani’s tweet inspired us to ask a group of prominent Democrats — elected officials and political operatives, old hands and up-and-comers — to explain what went wrong on election night, and where the party has to go going forward.

        Lauren Book, member, Florida Senate
        Lauren Book, member, Florida Senate

        Lauren Book, member, Florida Senate. Change is hard. Real change is real hard.

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        For Democrats, it is time for real change. For sure, we need new leadership at the Florida Democratic Party, but truth be told, the failures experienced by Florida Democrats this November should not be laid solely at the feet of the individuals who work there.

        It would be easy to simply call for resignations and firings. Too easy! However, it wouldn’t effect change enough to make any meaningful difference.

        Figuratively speaking, the Florida Democratic Party is still driving a 1970s Ford Pinto when Republicans are cruising around in Teslas. Why do I use that analogy in particular? Because our party relies on an outdated 1970s “precinct captain” model in which party leaders are not directly accountable to the voters. Until we change this system and structure, we will simply not be competitive.

        Today, the real recruiting of candidates, fundraising for races, running of campaigns and registering of voters happens outside the Florida Democratic Party. This work is done by elected leaders within the Florida House and Florida Senate. Each member of the legislature are likewise separate islands unto themselves, most of us with our own political committees. Accountability should matter for most all things in life, yet for the Florida Democratic Party, there is none.

        When Governor Lawton Chiles was elected in 1990, he sought to change this structure by shifting the power and responsibility of managing our party to those who held public office. To some degree, he succeeded. But to a larger degree, he failed. The current party apparatus remains controlled by good and caring people who work hard for our state and the Florida Democratic Party, but who don’t really campaign or change the trajectory of statewide races. Florida Democratic Party leadership does not truly have an impact on the outcome of modern-day, multi-million-dollar campaigns, which require microtargeting, coordinated outreach and strong, influence-wielding leadership, all of which the Republicans have gotten down pat.

        The proof this year (once again) was in the proverbial pudding. In the off-season, the Republican Party of Florida out-registered new voters by more than 150,000 since the election of Donald Trump. That alone is an unacceptable failure.

        As for blame? There is plenty to go around. But this senator is not interested in pointing fingers. This Senator is interested in change. In real change. The hard kind.

        Mitch Ceasar is a candidate for Broward County Supervisor of Elections.
        Mitch Ceasar is a candidate for Broward County Supervisor of Elections.

        Mitch Ceasar, Broward Democratic Party Chair, 1996-2016. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Florida has gone Republican again. Our status as a “swing state” will take its last possible gasp in a 2022 governors' race. Meanwhile, Broward will remain a political island. For the last several decades, the Broward Democratic Party has been senior-oriented with minorities mixed in. Now, it is the reverse. It’s the changing demographic.

        In the past, the party would use direct mail and voter outreach as a preferred methodology. Today, technology use has accelerated because of COVID-19. Democratic meetings and rallies with affiliated groups have given way to Zoom.

        Broward Democrats still win most of their races. If you are a Democratic nominee, it is difficult to lose countywide. That will not change. However, this year, the party failed to provide any attention to nonpartisan, municipal races. I have always believed those folks are our “farm team” for higher office. Results showed the lack of attention.

        Where do we go from here? The value of local parties will continue but will probably have a lesser role. Perhaps the growth of independent voters, or the emergence of advocacy and minority outreach groups, are replacing the old party structure. More money has also proven to be less important within county races. Paired with a changing demographic, a new generation of electeds has been produced in 2020.

        Whoever leads either party will need to understand the value of anticipating change and playing a role in that change. As the virus lessens, we will need to produce a mix of tech and grassroots activism. Finally, the party needs to play a role in the community and understand all neighborhoods. That’s the future.

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        State Sen. Janet Cruz
        State Sen. Janet Cruz

        Janet Cruz, member, Florida Senate. As we watched our candidates across the state flounder, dropping five seats in the state House, missing out on two potential pickups in the state Senate (and perhaps losing a seat outright), it became apparent yet again that a serious postmortem needed to take place for the Florida Democratic Party.

        I find myself pondering how many times we can possibly endure "a good old fashion ass-whooping” as Florida Trump campaign veteran Susie Wiles put it on Twitter. There will be plenty of deep-dives into what went wrong, but look no further than our state party’s conflation of Hispanic voters. There is no such thing as a singular “Hispanic vote,” and the continuous attempt to portray the community as a homogeneous bloc is reckless for campaigns and pundits nationwide. The warning signs about Miami-Dade county were there, but it was the classic case of too little, too late. In a county that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won by about 30% of the vote, former Vice President Joe Biden won by only 7%.

        How, as the party of the working class, did the state party fail to endorse the $15 minimum wage amendment? This amendment passed with the supermajority required. What issues did we communicate to Hispanic voters that matter to them? It is lazy and uninspired to simply lean on the political message that, “President Trump is bad.” We have continuously failed to offer a compelling counter to the repeated “socialist” attacks that have been parroted in South Florida for years. The “socialist” argument resonates not only with Cubans, but also with Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Colombians. It is imperative we finally address this persistent narrative in a meaningful way, and that we communicate our message at the grassroots level. Until we do, we will continue to get our bell rung by the opposition up and down the ballot.

        Anna V. Eskamani is the Democratic state representative for House District 47.
        Anna V. Eskamani is the Democratic state representative for House District 47.

        Anna Eskamani, member, Florida House. After announcing our landslide re-election victory in a swing seat, it was my twin sister who broke the news to me — Miami-Dade County was a bloodbath for elected Democrats, and we were going to lose multiple seats in the state House. My phone started to buzz and among the congratulatory texts came messages of frustration and grief. It’s a familiar experience for Florida Democrats; since 2010, I remember the mixed emotions of small wins and major losses during almost every election night.

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        So what went wrong this time? For me, there are some clear-cut answers.

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        One, Democrats overwhelmingly had no field program. Safety concerns with COVID-19 created challenges when it came to activities like door knocking, but that’s not a reason to halt field operations, it’s a motivation to reinvent how you do it.

        From March to July, our campaign suspended traditional field operations and conducted wellness checks through phone banking to ask constituents not for votes, but to instead ask how can we help you during this pandemic? This led to our team prioritizing unemployment claims, eventually serving more than 30,000 Floridians in securing their benefits. In the late summer, we relaunched field work through literature drops, and eventually, socially distant door knocking. In total we made 40,000 phone calls and touched 33,000 doors and won re-election by 18,000 votes with 80% voter turnout.

        Two, the state party and legislative caucuses are beholden to corporate donors and consultants (sometimes these are intertwined!), leading to no compelling message that appeals to everyday people.

        Florida’s $15 minimum wage amendment — which passed with 61% support — had no meaningful promotion by the Biden campaign, state party, or self-anointed Democratic leaders. The Florida Democratic Party also made the foolish decision of applying for a PPP loan. Republicans seized on that.

        Democrats assume that voters of a certain color, age and gender will automatically vote with us. What my party fails to realize is that you can’t buy this support, you have to build it.

        Agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida. Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel
        Agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida. Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel (Carline Jean / Sun Sentinel)

        Nikki Fried, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture. Florida Democrats took a gut punch on Tuesday night — despite historic voter turnout, we lost crucial races from top to bottom on the ballot. As Democrats, we have long held that when more people are empowered to vote, we win elections. I still believe this to be true, but we must face the reality of this moment: Something went very wrong in Florida.

        And it’s not only that it went wrong this time, something is wrong with our approach in Florida. The Florida Democratic Party, and all affiliated infrastructures, including campaigns and caucuses up and down the ballot, need to take a deep, thorough and thoughtful look at the issues that lead to this catastrophic loss and how we can adapt and move forward.

        As the dust begins to settle, the issues will become more clear, but it’s unmistakable that parts of the foundation of Democrats' strategy are, at their core, unsound. Our data operations and the polling used to gather, develop and build on that information are clearly flawed. The coordination and communication between campaigns at varying levels of the ticket was feeble. Parts of our message to different communities is deeply flawed, and we struggle to fight back against false, negative attacks.

        This ruin is a reckoning. As we sort through the debris left by this electoral destruction, more will become clear, and we will use these lessons to rebuild, regroup and reform our entire approach to elections in the Sunshine State.

        And although the election results signaled a loss for Florida Democrats, it symbolizes a crucial win for the American people. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will move us forward in the direction of unity, equality, hope, justice and truth. This election marks the dawn of a new era all across America.

        Dan Gelber
        Dan Gelber (Courtesy)

        Dan Gelber, mayor, Miami Beach, former state senator and Florida House Minority Leader. Florida Democrats have seen more than our fair share of heartbreak. I was first elected to the Legislature in 2000 and watched up close our worst loss. Since then, we have felt a little like that plucky, underdog sandlot team that you root to win the big game against outsized odds. Unfortunately, we’ve never been able to find that storybook ending, other than sporadically in presidential elections. Finger pointing is senseless unless the fingers point inward, and suggesting we have to be more like the other guys guts our principles.

        And sanctimony isn’t a strategy. Half our state, more or less, don’t think we’re right. We can continue to demand they agree or try to speak to as many of them as possible.

        For a party that truly celebrates diversity, our approach to elections is remarkably brittle and top down. But, Florida’s montage is unlike nearly any other state. Miami-Dade is bigger than a dozen states and has its own foreign policy. Broward, an entirely different feel. Cubans in Miami, many of whom came here in the ’80s, are different than Cubans in Tampa who also arrived in the ’80s — the 1880s. Racial and ethnic communities, college and beach towns, all somehow shopping at the same Target.

        So, we are not a state with a single heartbeat. And while we are sensitive to diversity as a party, we sometimes fail to electioneer with that same level of nuance. For instance, in my community, so many come from countries where the boot of socialism is real. So, when Republicans ran ad hominem, false accusations of socialism against every Democratic candidate, no matter the office, our failure to respond powerfully was devastating. This was especially disheartening because our core beliefs as a political party reject authoritarian regimes of any flavor.

        So, no one should freak out, but we should quit assuming being right is enough.

        Juan Pe?alosa, executive director, Florida Democratic Party
        Juan Pe?alosa, executive director, Florida Democratic Party

        Juan Pe?alosa, executive director, Florida Democratic Party. Since March 2018 when I joined the Florida Democratic Party, Floridians from across the state devoted money, sweat and tears into rebuilding the party. And in two years' time, it wasn’t enough. That’s tough for all of us in this movement.

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        We will have brutal conversations to understand what went wrong and what we got right, but what we know is, in Florida, Republicans were unmatched by Democrats in election day turnout — for the third cycle in a row. And Cubans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans and too many people of color — who had been trending for Democrats — voted for Trump and Republicans in 2020.

        Democrats have to find a way to dramatically increase turnout and win back people of color, working-class voters and others from Central and South America and the Caribbean. We have a lot to unpack, but a start is to recognize there is no such thing as a “Hispanic” voter. There are Cuban voters, Colombian voters, Puerto Rican voters, etc. And as for Black and Caribbean communities, too few of their leaders have a seat at the table in our party with power and budget to make decisions. And working-class Floridians don’t think we’re in their corner — even though that couldn’t be further from the truth.

        Until we recognize the differences in our communities, focus on issues that matter to them and empower their leaders to make decisions in our party, we will continue to lose.

        We also have to figure out our data issues. We can’t make decisions correctly if our polling is off by 8 points and our models show us winning voting blocs that don’t vote for our candidates.

        Early Friday, we saw Georgia flip. Stacey Abrams tweeted that this day was 10 years in the making. If we are going to win Florida again, we need to make a long-term investment in rebuilding our state, do it together and accept that it may not happen overnight.

        Steve Schale, political strategist, Florida State Director for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, senior advisor for 2012 campaign, executive director of the pro-Biden Unite the Country PAC.
        Steve Schale, political strategist, Florida State Director for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, senior advisor for 2012 campaign, executive director of the pro-Biden Unite the Country PAC.

        Steve Schale, political strategist, Florida State Director for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, senior advisor for 2012 campaign, executive director of the pro-Biden Unite the Country PAC. It’s super easy for Democrats to blame the Florida Democratic Party for everything. But the truth is, the FDP isn’t really anything, nor has it been for a long time.

        Politics and organizing on the left is done by a mix of outside groups and a weak party. There are good and smart people on both sides, but frankly, it’s a terribly inefficient system that lacks accountability.

        In my view, we need a strong party focused on a few core things:

        1. Focus on candidates. You can’t control national mood or events, but you can control recruiting the best possible candidates — candidates who have currency in their communities, and fit their districts. The legislative caucuses need to be inside this permanent infrastructure

        2. Get out of Tallahassee. I could care less if the FDP ever sends another press release. Focus on community engagement and voter registration. Meet voters where they are.

        3. Open up the party. Let anyone run for chair. Make it easier for voices outside the party to be heard. Be a place where young, talented operatives can grow. It is currently too exclusive, and that needs to change.

        4. Have a vision that’s sustainable. The party is very cycle-oriented and driven by the nominees. The party should be a foundation for candidates, not a vehicle that changes with the whims of the campaign.

        5. Remember, the job is winning. Results matter. The party can’t ever be everything to everyone — the party must measure itself with wins.

        In 2004, Bush won Florida by 5 points. In the next four years, we won three of six statewide races, and picked up a record number of wins at the congressional and legislative level. So all is not lost. But as we said back in those days, we weren’t trying to think outside the box — we were trying to build the box.

        It is time to get back to those basics.

        Phillip Singleton
        Phillip Singleton

        Phillip Singleton, political strategist. I’m a lifelong Los Angeles Clippers fan, so I know losers when I see them.

        The biggest problem Florida Democrats had in 2020 was simple. They keep hiring and listening to unqualified people. It was all downhill once someone hired [former Florida Democratic Party Executive Director] Scott Arceneaux (pronounced ArceLOSS) and listened to his Rat Pack network of inexperienced, overpriced cretins as to which communities deserved resources.

        For some reason, instead of hiring proven, homegrown talent and giving them an opportunity to be competitive and win Florida, leadership in the party would rather fatten the same Rat Pack’s pockets.

        For Florida Democrats to have any hopes to win in 2022 or ’24, they need to clean house, and then follow the historic blueprint set in Duval County this cycle. Collectively, as a team, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, state Rep. Tracie Davis, state Rep.-elect Angie Nixon, Duval Democratic Party Chair Daniel Henry, [political consultant] Siottis Jackson, myself and a handful of other key players put a plan together to win Jacksonville for Biden — and we did!

        There’s much to learn on what worked to flip a 40-year GOP stronghold Democratic. This Duval blueprint, and all these North Florida leaders, should be a part of all future conversations Florida Democrats have on a strategy going forward.

        Matthew Van Name, chief of staff, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.
        Matthew Van Name, chief of staff, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.

        Matthew Van Name, chief of staff, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried. There are a lot of things to be said about this 2020 election, but right now, if we’re going to be honest, as Democrats, we should have more questions than answers about trying to rebuild from this cycle.

        The results of this election have clearly revealed that there are sub-structural flaws in the footing of Florida Democratic programs. To say that we need to re-evaluate our approach is an understatement. We need to break new ground, and more importantly, a new blueprint for running multilevel Democratic campaigns in Florida.

        While it’s too early to fully identify, analyze and absorb all of the lessons from 2020, it’s abundantly clear that several pillars of the Democratic complex are broken.

        Our data and targeting is off balance. This isn’t a new problem, but it’s become a glaring vulnerability. We have to stabilize our polling to get a more accurate forecast on voter perspective, trends and turnout.

        We must be united on a core message for all of Florida. There’s a disconnect between Democrats' policy priorities and the perception that voters take to their ballot. If we don’t hone in on breaking through the attack ads, we will continue to lose elections.

        We must engage with all communities of voters across the state. The Democratic party was built on community organizing, and we have to get back to basics to ensure we’re strong on the fundamentals that have helped us succeed in the past.

        The Democratic foundation is strong, but to move forward, we have to tear down the walls and we can’t be afraid of what we’ll find in the process — transparency and reality are a necessity for change.

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        Two of the elected officials in this article reference the Florida Democratic Party’s failure to support Amendment 2. After publication, the manager of the campaign for the minimum-wage amendment, Ben Pollara, wrote on Twitter that the Florida Democratic Party was “all in on min wage from day zero — they endorsed us, helped collect petitions, and spent $200,000 promoting a digital slate card that told voters #YesOn2. I don’t know where this beef is coming from, but FDP was good for us.”

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