The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Florida Democratic Party is in ruins. Rebuilding for 2024 better start now.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist at a campaign rally with President Biden and Democratic senatorial candidate Val Demings, in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Nov. 1. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

While Democrats around the country defied tradition, expectations and naysayers on Election Day, Florida Democrats got crushed.

How bad was it?

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a man whose unironic campaign slogan was “Keep Florida Free,” clobbered his Democratic opponent, Rep. Charlie Crist, by more than 19 points. The rout was a rarity in a swing state known for squeaky-tight races.

DeSantis scooped up resounding majorities from just about every category of voter: Latinos, women, men, the college-educated, suburbanites, urbanites and rural residents. Independents sided with the incumbent, as did voters age 45 and older.

The governor flipped eight of the 13 counties he lost in 2018 and improved his standing in all of Florida’s 67 counties. In vote-heavy Latino Miami-Dade, his numbers jumped by 16 percentage points. Other Republicans outperformed, too. Sen. Marco Rubio trounced Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat, by more than 16 percentage points.

Not a single Democrat will hold a statewide position next year for the first time since the late 1800s.

“Complete collapse,” Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant in Florida, said on social media on election night. “We either reset or go extinct.”

The Florida Democratic Party has had a woeful track record for the past decade, but now it has hit rock bottom. Political activists I’ve spoken with tell me that the crucial cogs of political victory — robust voter registration, accurate voter lists, on-the-ground grass-roots hustling, permanent field offices, smart messaging — are either nonexistent or on life support.

I’m also told that the Florida Democratic Party doesn’t have a dependable database of its voters and lacks a sophisticated operation to identify would-be Democrats. Another concern: the state party’s overreliance on expensive out-of-state consultants who don’t understand Florida’s complicated mix of people, or on in-state strategists with outdated ideas.

No wonder Democrats in Florida got steamrolled.

“After this cycle, if a political infrastructure is not built, it’s inexcusable,” said Thomas Kennedy, a member of the Democratic National Committee and a Florida political activist. “We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge our failures and move forward. These are serious problems.”

Some Florida Democrats point out, rightly, that this election season was a particularly tough year for many reasons.

DeSantis is a juggernaut, but Florida itself is now catnip to Republicans across the country, with Donald Trump anchored in Palm Beach and DeSantis eyeing the White House. Many newcomers have headed here, heeding the siren call of zero state income tax and a too-bad, so-sad attitude toward low-wage workers, struggling renters and others.

It’s also true that the abortion issue didn’t resonate in Florida, as it did in much of the rest of the country, no doubt prompting national Democratic groups to all but abandon the state. In 2018, they spent $58 million. This year, it was a farcical $1.4 million. But you can’t blame them. Why should they take Florida Democrats seriously if the state party doesn’t take itself seriously?

Now for the hard part: Republicans deserved to win. After they were flogged in 2012 by President Barack Obama, the state GOP buckled down and did the hard, expensive work of nurturing, identifying and turning out Florida Republican voters, particularly Latinos.

Over time, the state GOP has done everything Democrats didn’t do, and its voter outreach strategies should be mimicked. Local and state GOP organizers, following the blueprint of the Libre Initiative, which helps Latinos with driver’s exams and with citizenship and English classes, have replicated the idea. The result is Republican Party loyalty and activism.

It’s no wonder 58 percent of Latino voters, many of them Puerto Ricans, chose DeSantis.

Grass-roots outreach is expensive. But ads, mailers and texts are simply not enough. The Florida Democratic Party must convince donors that it can right the ship by creating and executing a plan for a lasting campaign, Kennedy said.

The party also needs to embrace a straight-talking message of economic populism if it hopes to recapture the working class and Latinos. And it must focus on recruiting young, quality candidates for local and state positions — another long-running strategy of Florida Republicans.

As for the 2024 primaries, Florida Democrats must stop limiting them to registered Democrats and throw them open to independent voters. Voters identified with neither major party now make up 29 percent, and their number is growing. By opening primaries to everyone, the Democratic Party wouldn’t have to wait until August before an election to start courting independents.

“Voter depression among Democrats was a bigger problem than voter suppression,” Kennedy said.

The irony is that a winning playbook exists. It belonged to Obama and his organizers. Democrats can’t afford to cede Florida to Republicans. It’s too big and too important, with 30 electoral votes in 2024, for donors to write off.

And with both DeSantis and Trump seemingly ready to brawl in 2024, I would start rebuilding today.