MIAMI — The emphatic victories by Republican candidates in Tuesday’s elections cemented Florida’s shift to the right, sending a blaring signal that what once was the nation’s bellwether swing state is firmly red and potentially slipping out of reach for Democrats in the 2024 presidential contest.
Battered and deflated by their party’s worst statewide showing in more than 100 years, Democratic strategists and activists said Wednesday it may take the party at least a decade to rebound from its stunning losses, which they fear are rooted in a fundamental cultural shift in Florida’s electorate as well as their inability to turn out even some of their most reliable voters.
Now, many Florida Democrats worry the state will become even more of a laboratory for Republican policies as candidates elsewhere consider how they can win — and as DeSantis eyes a possible run for the White House in two years.
“This state is really a portrait of what happens when Florida Democrats fail, over many, many years, to communicate a working-class economic message,” said Joshua Karp, a Democratic strategist who worked on two statewide campaigns in Florida this year. He noted that about 1 million fewer voters supported statewide Democratic candidates for governor and U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s election compared with four years ago. “Now, we got to figure out, did they shift to becoming Republicans — or did they just not show up?”
Florida’s shift to the right — which is occurring even as the electorate in recent elections became younger and more diverse, demographic changes that usually usher in a turn to the left — takes place as its beach towns and sprawling suburbs become a magnet for conservatives drawn by DeSantis’s hands-off approach to fighting the pandemic and his assault against what he calls the “woke left.”
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“We have gone from the place people move to for the weather and beaches, to the number one thing I now hear is, ‘I am moving to Florida for freedom,’” said Christian Ziegler, a Republican strategist and vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
The state’s shift is cultural as much as political. In recent years, Florida has seen a surge in parents who home-school their children and in the number of residents who carry a gun. The state has made itself the epicenter for nationwide debates over school textbooks and the rights of transgender youths. And Florida has increasingly emerged as a hot spot for extremism. More residents were arrested here for allegedly participating in the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol than in any other state. Members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence, sit on county Republican Party executive committees, including in Miami.
Even before Tuesday, the signs of building GOP strength here were apparent in voter registration statistics: Four years ago, when DeSantis was first elected by just 32,000 votes, Florida Democrats still had an advantage of nearly 300,000 registered voters over the GOP.
Since then, Florida has added nearly 1.2 million new voters. Republicans added 570,000 registrants, while Democrats had a net gain of just 2,300 statewide. Since the start of the year, Republicans gained ground over Democrats in all 67 Florida counties.
Democratic volunteers such as Judith Grey, a teacher in South Florida, said the party’s efforts to rally voters felt painstaking this year. She went door-to-door in neighborhoods where Democrats have traditionally found support and said some residents didn’t even want to answer the doorbell.
“The people were just not talking, as if there was some kind of fear in the air,” said Grey, who is Haitian American.
Tuesday’s election results followed a trend years in the making.
Although Barack Obama narrowly carried Florida in both of his presidential campaigns, the state’s voters haven’t voted for a Democrat for governor since 1994. Strategists from both parties say Florida may be joining Ohio and Iowa — two other states that Obama carried — as places where Democrats nationally now face long odds of success in a presidential campaign.
“Across the board, the fundamentals have been trending this way for a decade, and [Florida] really now is pretty solidly Republican,” said Terry Sullivan, a partner at Firehouse Strategies, a Washington-based consulting firm. “That may change … But in the short term, Florida is every bit as Republican as Texas.”
Despite the state’s general tilt to the right over time, political analysts say DeSantis can take credit for whipping up decisive victories both for himself and Republican candidates statewide.
Twenty years ago, the state GOP was defined by then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s soft-spoken and relatively moderate style of politics. But after former president Donald Trump stormed onto the political scene in 2016, the Florida GOP began gravitating toward a brasher, more rigid style of governing that has intensified under DeSantis.
After his narrow 2018 election, DeSantis initially governed toward the center by focusing on issues such as improving water quality and embracing medical marijuana. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, DeSantis began pushing a more polarizing agenda that included bucking scientists by quickly reopening the state’s businesses and tourism centers, even as the coronavirus went on to kill more than 80,000 Floridians.
DeSantis quickly spun his approach into a broader political message that Florida was a “free state,” a message that appealed both to conservatives as well as some traditionally Democratic-leaning constituencies, including many Latinos and younger voters.
Susan A. MacManus, a veteran Florida political analyst and a professor emerita at the University of South Florida, said DeSantis also succeeded in tapping into widespread unease among parents over education issues, especially in the state’s booming exurban communities, where many mothers “just felt that the country was heading in the wrong direction in almost every dimension.”
“He has a very good read on where the public is on an issue at any particular time,” MacManus said, adding that DeSantis has tried to position himself as a “moral trendsetter.”
As DeSantis has proved adept at motivating GOP voters, Florida Democrats have been beset by poor fundraising and scattered messaging.
Samantha Hope Herring, a member of the Democratic National Committee who lives in the Florida Panhandle, said big donors and national liberal interest groups have long shown interest in Florida every four years — during presidential elections. But little of that attention and money filtered down to county parties and local organizations so they could work year-round to identify and turn out Democratic-leaning voters, especially younger voters and minorities.
“We have to reimagine how we connect with the people in this state,” Herring said. “Just think about seniors. Seniors are literally the largest regular voting bloc in this state, and we do almost nothing to target them.”
Republicans, by contrast, have engaged with voters at a grass-roots level between election cycles — even offering civics courses for immigrants studying to become U.S. citizens, priming a new generation of GOP voters.
Democrats such as U.S. Rep Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who represents parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, place part of the blame for the party’s poor voter mobilization on continued fallout from its decision to limit canvassing and other in-person events in 2020 during the pandemic.
The congresswoman, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, said her party needs to quickly find a way to attract new voters.
“There is no presidential campaign that can afford to just cede 30 electoral votes,” she said.
The Democratic Party’s slide in Florida is particularly acute among Cuban American voters, who make up about 30 percent of the state’s Hispanic population.
Many older Cuban American voters in South Florida have been Republicans since the Cold War, but Democrats started making inroads with younger Cuban Americans during Obama’s presidency. Before the 2016 election, a Florida International University poll found Cuban American voters under 40 favored Hillary Clinton over Trump by a 2-to-1 margin.
In FIU’s poll this year, nearly 60 percent of Cuban American voters under 40 said they planned to vote for DeSantis. The poll also showed that just 9 percent of the immigrants who arrived from Cuba over the past seven years planned to register as Democrats.
“From Trump on down, a lot of these [Republican] candidates have courted the Cuban American voter very systematically for many years … and they have promoted this discourse in Florida that all Democrats are socialists,” said Jorge Duany, the director of the university’s Cuban Research Institute.
And strategists warn that even some more traditionally Democratic Latino electorates such as Puerto Rican voters are questioning their allegiances. Over half of Florida’s Puerto Ricans voted for DeSantis over Crist, according to network exit polls.
State Sen. Victor M. Torres Jr. (D) said Democrats’ problem in this year’s election wasn’t that Puerto Rican voters made a major shift toward the GOP. Instead, Torres said, Democrats didn’t do a good enough of a job persuading moderate and left-leaning Puerto Ricans to vote.
“It’s like pulling teeth,” said Torres, who is Puerto Rican and represents suburban Orlando. “I don’t want to point fingers and I don’t want to blame anybody, but I can tell you, we didn’t do it the right way, and we didn’t get organized the right way.”
Away from big cities such as Miami, exurban communities are simultaneously at the forefront of pushing the state further to the right. It’s in places such as Brevard County — located along part of the eastern peninsula known as the “Space Coast” — that some of the most divisive and telling political battles have emerged.
The county has been reliably Republican since the 1970s; DeSantis carried Brevard by about 17 percentage points in 2018. He won it by about 30 points on Tuesday.
Rick Lacey, the chairman of the Brevard County Republican Party, said interest in the GOP soared during the pandemic as well as after Trump lost the 2020 election. Lacey said the county GOP committee now has 300 active members, up from about 100 five years ago.
On Tuesday, the GOP secured a 4-to-1 majority on the county school board after Republican Gene Trent won a seat. In an interview shortly before the election, Trent said one of his top priorities would be to rewrite the school’s policies toward transgender students, including a policy that allows students to use the locker room of their choice.
“The bathroom issue is a big deal for me,” said Trent, who added Florida Republicans increasingly believe “everything that is important” happens at the “local level.”
Robert Burns, a Brevard County resident who is a Republican, said the county’s character is changing as the GOP’s message finds a growing audience. He cited more hostility and less tolerance for opposing viewpoints.
He pointed to a Brevard County Republican Party resolution adopted in July disputing Biden’s victory and falsely alleging “voter fraud” in 2020 as a sign of how local leaders have become more radical.
“Why, in a county where we literally have rocket scientists and highly educated people, do we also have this group of people?” Burns asked.
Jennifer Jenkins, who will be the lone Democrat on the school board, is also worried about the coarsened nature of state and local politics, saying some Democrats are now questioning if they want to stay in Florida.
“It is almost like the first question people ask you when they meet you is about politics, because they want to know where you are politically,” she said. “It’s like this tension, and an us-versus-them mentality.”
State Rep. Randy Fine (R), a staunch conservative from Brevard County, said the state’s turn to the right is ultimately a reflection of what voters want.
“We are not hiding who we are,” he said. “And the people who are coming here now just are not coming for the weather and the taxes. Now, they are coming for the values.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.
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What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.