The political landscape in Florida has changed a great deal this decade. But the more that changes, even more stays the same. Florida’s Democrats appear fearful of nominating perceived liberal candidates from southeast Florida and are discussing the need to place “moderate” Democrats in key races. Yet the track record of Florida’s Democrats on such matters is pitiful at best.
We’ve been on this ride before. Florida’s Democratic Primary voters were told by party elders in 2002 that Janet Reno’s nomination would be a disaster for Democrats and that the moderate Bill McBride from Tampa would be the right image for the party. McBride won almost every Florida country in the primary with Reno, but lost badly in the three southeast Florida counties (which more resemble New York or New Jersey in voting patterns than the rest of Florida).
McBride’s nomination was disastrous for Florida’s Democrats with the GOP winning a record majority in both chambers of the Florida Legislature. One can only speculate on Janet Reno’s electability statewide. While many southeast Floridians seem to owe more loyalty to New York or New Jersey than to Florida, Reno was distinctly old Florida. McBride on the other hand spoke like an old Floridian, but lacked the understanding and passion for issues affecting old Florida, particularly environmental ones. McBride was a distinctly new Florida lawyer with little idea how to appeal to ethnic urban voters or old Florida constituencies.
This cycle was repeated in the 2004 US Senate race when southeast Floridians Alex Penelas and Peter Deutsch were considered “too ethnic” for voters north of Jupiter. Much like politics in northern states, ethnic urban candidates are often seen as undesirable in the rural and suburban areas of those states. Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York have long histories of nominating candidates from outside urban areas in their Democratic Primaries.
The obsession of Pennsylvania and Illinois Democrats with selecting nominees from outside Philadelphia and Chicago respectively has finally vanished. From that we have produced Governor Ed Rendell, and President Barack Obama, two of the most able Democrats in the nation. The 21st Centruy has brought throughout the nation a new emphasis on problem solving and ability and less of an emphasis on ideology thoughout the nation.
But the obsession in Florida of nominating non southeast Florida area candidates remains. Anybody who seeks the Democratic nomination from Miami-Dade County is instantly viewed with suspicion outside the area.
Kendrick Meek and Dan Gelber have both placed themselves forward in seeking the US Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez. But as I speak to Democrats from outside Miami-Dade, Broward or Palm Beach Counties, I hear the usually snickering about nominating liberals and southeast Floridians.
The last three major elections, the Democrats have nominated perceived moderates from increasingly conservative Hillsborough County, and in all three elections the Democrats have lost. The Democrats have avoided nominating southeast Floridians at all cost and have also managed to avoid fielding strong candidates from the Orlando area, growing rapidly and moving equally quickly into the Democratic column.
Democrats in Tallahassee and across the state seem to be once again placing a geographic stigma on Senator Gelber and Congressman Meek. This stigma, so difficult for many to overcome is preciously why the Democrats continue to lose election after election in Florida.