Florida’s Democrats: Stuck in the 20th Century

2 02 2009

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.

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Sink Decision a Blessing for Democrats

16 01 2009

By Kartik Krishnaiyer

Alex Sink’s  decision to not seek the US Senate being vacated by Mel Martinez is a blessing in disguise for the Democratic Party. Sink while capable and a statewide electoral winner would have become the latest Florida Democrat from the Tampa Bay area in the category of “we must nominate a moderate from outside south Florida category.”

The last three high profile statewide races have seen the Democrats nominate perceived moderates from the Tampa Bay area. All three have lost the general election. Sink’s husband Bill McBride suffered the single worst defeat for a Democratic Gubernatorial nominee in Florida’s history. McBride won a contentious primary over Miami’s Janet Reno, the former Clinton Administration Attorney General by carrying 62 of 67 Florida counties in the primary but being beaten by 26 points in Palm Beach County, 38 in Broward and a whopping 68 points in Miami-Dade County. Reno’s home base, represented by the three aforementioned counties then underperformed for McBride in the general election.

In 2004, Betty Castor provided the modrate profile Florida Democratic leaders believed would carry the US Senate seat being vacated by Bob Graham. While Castor ran strong in the Tampa Bay Area, she did not deliever the needed numbers in other traditional “Republican horseshoe” counties to defeat Mel Martinez. Castor also underperformed in Miami-Dade County, much as McBride had done.

Jim Davis was a stronger nominee than many expected in 2006. Yet the Tampa area Congressman and former Florida House Majority Leader (this shows my age. I  remember well Davis as the majority leader in the last two years the Democrats controlled the body) still lost by a wide margin statewide and did not perform particularly well in his home area. Davis however also suffered from the fallout of a primary where Democrats in the Legislature wrongly attacked his electability. These Democrats almost universally had endorsed McBride because of his perceived “electability” in 2002 and used the same argument in an attempted undermining of Davis in 2006. Davis may have bucked the trend of Tampa Bay area nominees if not for this nasty divisive rhetoric in the primary.

Sink’s decision to not seek the Senate seat gives the Democrats an opportunity to reverse the trend of nominating candidates from the Tampa Bay area whose mushy moderation may or may not distingusih them adequetly from the GOP nominee. With Congressman Kendrick Meek having announced, a strong south Florida liberal has already entered the race. Others such as Florida Senator Dan Gelber may also jump in.  The Democrats also have many emerging stars in the Orlando area. This is an opportunity for south Florida, the emrging Democratic area of Metro Orlando and the Democratic Party.