MIAMI BEACH — Florida Democrats are putting on a brave face and professing confidence that they’ve started to slow — and reverse — the downward slide that has seen them come close to irrelevance as Republicans have surged.
“I am feeling optimistic — very optimistic,” Alfredo Olvera, Broward’s state Democratic committeeman said during a break Saturday at the Florida Democratic Party’s annual summer Leadership Blue conference and fundraiser.
“The excitement is genuine. We haven’t disguised the challenges with optimism,” Olvera added. “We are aware of the problems, and we are creating a path to win in 2024. We were absent in 2020. We were absent in 2024.”
The challenges are many: Finding candidates willing to run for open offices. Registering voters in an attempt to counter a rapidly growing Republican advantage. Getting voters who want to use mail ballots in 2024 to send in requests; previous mail-ballot requests have now expired.
And, essential to it all, raising money to fund everything a political organization needs to do.
“I know that we have problems,” said Junaid Akther, the Palm Beach County state Democratic committeeman. “It’s a big ship that’s turning around,”
Bradley Whitford, the keynote speaker, delivered a broad takedown of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the presidential candidate and bête noire of Florida Democrats.
Whitford is an actor best known for his role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman in the TV drama The West Wing in the late 1990s to the mid 2000s, and also for his role in the 2017 film Get Out.
He picked apart DeSantis’ boast that Florida under his leadership is a “free” state, and predicted his presidential campaign would end in failure.
Whitford said Florida Democrats “are in a really unique position and are actually on the front lines with tremendous opportunity to stop this madness. Florida isn’t free when women don’t have the right to choose. Florida isn’t free when you’re making it easier to get guns into the hands of criminals. Florida isn’t free when you’ve got a governor who’s making it hard to vote,” Whitford said.
“On Broadway, we call things like Ron DeSantis a show that’s going to close out of town,” Whitford said in an afternoon news conference before his nighttime speech. “The policies, the radical policies that he’s pursuing are not popular and they’re not pro-life and they’re not conservative and I think that the Democrats in Florida have a really unique opportunity.”
And, he said, DeSantis isn’t sincere. “Ron DeSantis is wearing more makeup and doing more playacting than I am, and so is (Donald) Trump.”
“The conditions of the last election were unique. I think that using division as a political tactic can be effective for a while,” Whitford said. But when someone is only interested in their own power and not in “actual governing” it would quickly wear thin with the public.
Despite their challenges, the outlook isn’t hopeless, said Nikki Fried, who was elected this year as state Democratic Party chair. She was state agriculture commissioner from 2019 to 2023, and was an unsuccessful candidate for her party’s gubernatorial nomination last year.
“Democrats are fighting back, and we are never ever, ever backing down. That is who we are. That is who we are going to be, and that is the kind of fire we are going to bring here to the state of Florida,” she said.
In Fried’s view, DeSantis didn’t win by 19 points last year. “Florida Democrats lost by 19 points. And that is really on us,” she said.
DeSantis’ vote total didn’t increase substantially from 2018, she said. But Democratic turnout collapsed, and the party’s nominee Charlie Crist (who had defeated Fried in the for the nomination) received far fewer votes than the 2018 Democratic candidate.
Looking forward, Fried said, national Democrats have not given up on Florida. She asserted they are interested in competing in Florida in 2024. Others have suggested that national Democratic donors, after years of losses in Florida and an increasingly tough outlook are more inclined to spend their money in states where they see a better chance of victories than in Florida.
Fried said national donors are showing interest. “Our national donors are here. And they are part of this rebuild.”
One thing that was missing Saturday: a Democratic candidate to challenge U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the conservative former governor who is up for re-election next year. Many independent election ratings see Scott’s re-election as likely.
Fried said the party would make a strong effort against Scott. “Rick Scott is a top priority to take down.”
Former U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Miami-Dade County Democrat, who spoke to the conference in her role working for Giffords, the anti-gun violence organization, said later she is considering running.
Mucarsel-Powell didn’t offer a timetable for making a decision. But her comments to the audience, and later to reporters, sounded a lot like a candidate.
“These out-of-touch extremists cannot continue to wield the levers of power in our state. It’s time for Democrats to go on offense. Because our lives, our children’s lives, depend on it,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “This is a new beginning for our state. It’s a new day.”
The first Leadership Blue under Fried was different from previous such gatherings.
Leadership Blue has for years featured a Saturday of small group meetings of individual constituency groups, a big fundraising dinner featuring notable politicians (Bill Clinton, Joe Biden) or not-so-notable politicians (Washington Gov. Jay Inslee), and sometimes a Sunday meeting of the state party’s governing executive committee.
Fried threw out that playbook.
She said there’s a limit to how many four-hour-long chicken dinners “with seven keynote speakers” people can sit through.
So she planned an evening of entertainment including Whitford, for the fundraising dinner.
Jayden D’Onofrio, 18, of Weston, chair of the Florida Democratic Party’s Youth Council, isn’t of the West Wing generation. But he said he was an excellent choice. He said it’s important at times to “make light of our situation, even though it’s a dark time.”
During the day, Fried kept everyone together for nuts-and-bolts sessions all day long. The idea was to prevent people from staying in their own silos and learn what others are thinking and doing.
So, for example, older leaders of county parties heard from D’Onofrio on ways to try to attract younger voters.
On Sunday, party activists still in South Florida for the weekend will go canvassing in Miami-Dade County, soliciting signatures for a proposed amendment that would enshrine abortion rights in the Florida Constitution.
The main reason for the gathering, the evening fundraiser, was sold out with about 700 seats in the ballroom at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach with more tickets sold to a watch party.
Past Leadership Blue fundraisers have sometimes had 1,000 or more people at the gala. But Fried said this year’s event would be the most profitable the party has ever had. She declined to say how much the party would raise because money will still coming in Saturday afternoon.
A central focus from many Democrats was trying to figure out how their party can get their message across to voters in a way that motivates them to support its candidates and actually show up to vote.
Rolando Chang Barrero, president of the Palm Beach County Democratic Hispanic Caucus, said his party can’t look at Hispanic voters as monolithic. Different groups, with people who came from some 30 different nations in South Florida, require nuanced outreach that doesn’t assume everyone is the same and has the same interests.
“For too long we have assumed that ‘Hispanic’ is a voting bloc, and because we speak Spanish doesn’t mean we all vote the same way,” Barrero said.
“All Cuban-Americans are not Republicans,” he said. “You cannot discount Miami-Dade and say we’re not going to invest because they’re all Republicans.”
Some of the nuances are critically important. For example, he said, first-generation Cuban Americans will describe themselves as “political exiles” and not “immigrants,” Barrero said. Failure to understand and appreciate that leads to failed communications and missed opportunities to win support, he said.
Barrero also called for a conceded effort by Democrats to constantly communicate with voters – in a positive way. “People don’t want to hear about fear. They’re turned off by that stuff,” he said.
D’Onofrio said the party needs to radically change the way it interacts with younger voters, both for short-term election results and to produce results years in the future.
D’Onofrio said Generation Z voters went 55% for Democrats in Florida in 2022. In Wisconsin, which has a robust effort at engaging and turning out younger voters, he said it was 64%.
That has significant implications. He said two of the districts in that Democrats lost in state House of Representatives races last year would have been won if students at Florida Atlantic University and the University of Central Florida had turned out to vote in the midterm elections.
In too many places there is little or no outreach to students. In Broward, he said, there are no high school or college Democratic clubs. And there are only a handful in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
D’Onofrio, who strongly supported another candidate for party chair, applauded Fried for supporting plans to do more to attract younger voters, including a budget and a paid outreach coordinator.
“I’m very excited for the future of our party,” he said. ”I have never been excited for the future of the Florida Democratic Party. Now I am.”
Fried said the party has made other internal changes, with a new emphasis on the local operation in each county. She said if she were the CEO of Dairy Queen “some franchises aren’t working correctly it ruins the whole brand.”
That was a play off the viral moment of Trump at an Iowa Dairy Queen not knowing what the chain’s signature Blizzard was. (“Go look at the fact that Donald Trump doesn’t know what a Blizzard is, and of course Joe Biden knows what a Blizzard is and vanilla ice cream.”)
She said she’s reallocated money to help county parties and various constituency caucuses with organizing efforts, concentrating on voter registration.
And she said she’s pushed them to provide data to show how their efforts will produce results. “We cannot just be standing outside of Publixes and hope that we get voter registrations.”
Anthony Man can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @browardpolitics and on Post.news/@browardpolitics.