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Florida...Again? | The Nation

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Florida...Again?

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Additional reporting by Cissy Rebich.

Formidable Republicans

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Outside observers, however, counsel caution. "The Republican Party here is extremely disciplined and organized," says Mark Silva, political editor of the Orlando Sentinel. "No one should underestimate the real organization that Jeb Bush commands." Electoral math renders Florida a state the GOP can't afford to lose. "Look at the three big states: California, Texas and Florida," says Jim Krog, a former Democratic strategist who managed the two successful gubernatorial campaigns of the late Lawton Chiles. "Some Democrats think, wrongly, that they can win nationally and skip Florida, like Clinton did in '92 when they didn't put a dime in this state. But Republicans know they have to win two out of three of those states. Texas is one. California they can forget about. That leaves Florida as a must-win."

Consequently, the Bush-Cheney campaign is tightly targeting Florida and vows to have 2,500 paid and volunteer organizers and canvassers soon working on the ground, and twenty times that number by Election Day. Mimicking Big Labor's get-out-the-vote campaigns, the GOP aims to register tens of thousands of new Florida voters and is currently strip-mining the mailing lists of conservative interest groups, from the NRA to evangelical churches. And like the Democrats, the Republicans are already running six months ahead of the usual general election schedule. "The Republicans are just as serious in wanting to re-elect George W. Bush as those who oppose him are intent on getting rid of him," says Sharon Lettman-Pacheco, state director of America Votes, an umbrella group for two dozen progressive organizations. "I know they are sleeping in shifts if they are sleeping at all. They want it all, and they want it by any means necessary."

The state Republicans are also acutely aware of the shifts in Florida's electorate. Yes, they are likely to campaign on hot-button cultural wedge issues from guns to gay marriage, but "they're also going to try a run down the center," says former education commissioner Betty Castor, another Democratic contender for the open US Senate seat. "Jeb Bush really wants to deliver this state for his brother, so they are going to be touting jobs, the environment and education, basically trying to steal our Democratic issues." Nor should anyone overestimate the speed of shifting attitudes. Florida is the second-highest state in terms of National Guard members mobilized in Iraq. "Make no mistake. That still plays in the President's favor," says a Tallahassee political consultant.

Democratic activists say they expect little help in their efforts this year from the Florida Democratic establishment. The state party is disorganized and dispersed, often described by observers as rag-tag. "You can be sure the Democrats will be late, underfunded and lacking a strong center," predicts Krog.

Party insiders disagree. They point to a rambunctious state party convention two months ago that drew a record 5,000 delegates and activists and tout the election of a new and energetic party chairman, Scott Maddox. "We're angry and we are organized--better organized than ever before," says Broward County party power broker Amadeo "Trinchi" Trinchitella. "This time the party is not going to take one vote for granted."

Whatever the case, no one doubts that it's the grassroots that will do the heavy lifting this year, just as it did in 2000, when it produced a stunning turnout for Al Gore. "No one thought we could win and no one wanted to help," says Monica Russo, the fiery president of Florida Service Employees International Union Local 1199. "But what we pulled off, frankly, was incredible, almost a miracle." Lettman-Pacheco, who helped lead the aggressive get-out-the-vote effort, says, "Outsiders don't give enough credit to Florida for the 2000 turnout. The problem was the process, not the turnout. We, here, in fact, did everything extremely well."

2000: Arrive With Five

The movement-style politics in 2000 was inadvertently unleashed by Governor Jeb Bush when, in late 1999, he issued an executive order dismantling affirmative action programs in state education. Reacting to this "One Florida" measure, then-state legislators Tony Hill and Kendrick Meek (whose mother, Carrie Meek, was the first black Florida congresswoman) staged an overnight sit-in at the governor's Miami office. This dramatic move galvanized a bottom-up opposition movement that included Russo's SEIU, other progressive unions, civil rights groups, and numerous other black politicians. In March 2000, tens of thousands of angry protesters marched on Tallahassee urging, "Remember in November!"

The new ground-level coalition then came up with a voter mobilization strategy dubbed Arrive With Five--a pledge not only to show up at the polls but also to bring a handful of other voters in tow. As Meek, Hill, Russo and others led this campaign doggedly across the state and into more than thirty counties, the national Democrats and the Gore campaign remained on the margin. "But our strategy worked," says Russo. On the day after the November election the Miami Herald credited the Arrive With Five push with producing an "astounding" black voter turnout that included 88 percent of Miami Dade County's registered African-American voters. Statewide black turnout hit 73 percent (compared with 70 percent overall). And the black vote--which was more than 90 percent Democratic--zoomed from 10 percent of total votes cast in 1996 to 16 percent. In the end, the GOP squeaked by thanks only to five votes from the Supreme Court.

Two years later, however, with voter anger over the butterfly ballots and the dimpled chads still fresh, the Democratic Party failed to capitalize on its own grassroots in the governor's race. Eschewing the candidacy of former Attorney General Janet Reno--who enjoyed near superstar status among the Democrats' liberal base--the party opted instead for a little-known newcomer, Bill McBride. The Democrats fueled his campaign with a $15 million jolt in the closing weeks (mostly from the national party), but later analyses suggested it had spent too much money on ineffective TV ads and not nearly enough on door-to-door contact with the voter base. Black turnout collapsed to a mere 43 percent, and Jeb Bush buried McBride in an embarrassing landslide. Yet in that very same election, highlighting the gulf between the party and its base, the same progressive coalition fashioned two years before sponsored and won a statewide ballot proposition that wrote classroom size reduction into the state Constitution--a measure bitterly fought by Jeb Bush.

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