Do Florida Democrats Want to Win the State Senate This Year?

Do Florida Democrats Want to Win the State Senate This Year?

Do Florida Democrats Want to Win the State Senate This Year?

Party leaders’ reluctance to support promising challengers, and a penchant for punishing those who complain about that lack of support, provokes the question.


Florida Democrats are locked out of state-level power by a GOP trifecta that runs the governor’s office, the House, and the Senate. But they only need to pick up three Senate seats to achieve at least a tie in that chamber, and thus reach a power-sharing arrangement with the GOP, which is especially important as the state takes up redistricting next year. Party leaders and local observers seem to agree that two Democratic candidates have a decent chance to flip GOP-held open seats, in the Miami-Dade and Orlando areas. But a 21-19 balance gets the party very little in terms of legislative clout, particularly when it comes to redistricting.

That’s why observers and activists are increasingly perplexed that Florida Democratic leaders and donors haven’t coalesced around at least one or two more Democrats whom concentrated support might push across the finish line, especially if November turns into a blue wave election. Which it could. The once-popular Governor Ron De Santis now has the second-worst Covid-approval rating of the nation’s governors, right behind Iowa Republican Kim Reynolds. Meanwhile, Joe Biden is running ahead of Donald Trump in a state Hillary Clinton lost by only one point, largely on his strength with seniors. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg just announced plans to pump $100 million into Florida to elect Democrats.

Most of the confusion about why the state Democratic Senate leadership isn’t championing more challengers converges on Kathy Lewis, a writer and disability-rights activist who ran in a red district in 2018 and came closer to winning than anyone expected, taking 46.5 percent of the vote in this traditionally Republican, rural, urban, and suburban district, even though she was outspent more than 10-1 by a longtime GOP incumbent. Now he’s stepping down, prompting a special election for an open seat in this Tampa–St. Petersburg area district anchored by Hillsborough County. With more money and experience behind her, Lewis and her supporters believe she has a solid chance of victory this time, but party leaders don’t seem to see it that way.

And pointing out her lack of party support is, confoundingly, making it harder for her to raise money, Lewis told me. At least two major donors told the Senate District 20 candidate directly that party leaders warned them away from her campaign, because she has talked to local and national news outlets, including The Nation, about her struggles to get state Democrats to take her campaign seriously. More than one Florida Democrat has suggested she stop talking to the press about her travails, if she wants to gain support.

“Nobody’s gonna tell me what to say,” Lewis told me. “I can’t be bought.”

Lewis is not the only Florida Democratic candidate to feel abandoned by party leaders. After the State Democratic Environmental Caucus and the voter-access group 90 for 90 collaborated on recruiting 36 challengers for state House and Senate races—one for all but one seat—Senate Democratic minority leader Gary Farmer, who drives official caucus spending on 2020 races, belittled their efforts.

“I’m guided by science & reality,” Farmer tweeted. “Contesting every race is great if you have $ to do so. We simply don’t & won’t until we achieve majority. When you spend on races that are long shots you take $ from races that can be won.” Beth Matuga, a consultant for Senate Victory, a group representing Florida Senate Democrats, also replied defensively on Twitter, arguing that “the caucus has grown in 10yrs from 12 to 17, with very real opportunity to get to 19 this cycle…I’m tired of people pretending like contesting downballot seats is a new idea when they’ve been ignoring it for 10yrs.” It’s true that the caucus has clawed back seats, but if it only gets to 19 this cycle, critics note, it cedes redistricting entirely to the GOP, which will then draw new maps unlikely to give the Democrats a chance to win the Senate anytime soon. (I got pushback on that notion from one Florida source, who says that with a slim two-vote majority, Republicans won’t be able to sacrifice any incumbents to change district lines, which they did in 2011, after the GOP landslide of 2010, because they had a larger edge.)

Down With Tyranny blogger Howie Klein, long a pull-no-punches advocate for the party’s progressive insurgency, retorted in a post, “If There Was No Florida Democratic Party, It Would Be Easier For Democrats To Win.” Klein specifically cited Lewis’s lack of support, among others, as an example.

There is clearly major friction, in Florida and elsewhere, between a new wave of outside groups plus longtime activists who believe Democrats should be contesting many more, if not every, state legislative seat, and party leadership, which tends to fight to protect incumbents. “This is a real tension,” a leader of an outside group working in Florida told me. “Running in every district, if it doesn’t come with the necessary support, isn’t strategic.” On the other hand, party leaders tend to be over-concerned with protecting incumbents, along with their own leadership positions, and thus often define “winnable” races too narrowly, this person said, adding, “Kathy Lewis is exactly the kind of candidate we should support.”

I watched this play out in Virginia in 2017, where by most accounts Democratic House Caucus leaders, and even some progressive activists, thought they could pick up roughly eight GOP seats in the House of Delegates, though they were down by 16. Yet many more Virginia challengers argued, loudly, that they deserved support. Ultimately, Democrats won 15 seats, almost taking over leadership, thanks to brave insurgents, the intervention of new outside groups, and the emerging blue wave that in 2019 gave Virginia a Democratic trifecta, with control of the State House, Senate, and governor’s office.

Florida Democrats indeed look to be outmatched in terms of fundraising this year. The Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (FDLCC), the arm that supports Senate candidates, had raised just under $2 million by the end of August, compared to $7.1 million hauled in by the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to the Tampa Bay Times. In 2018, the Democrats were outspent $46 million to $18 million.

So the party is investing in flipping two Senate seats, also, like Lewis’s, left open by the departure of GOP incumbents. Leaders backed Representative Javier Fernández to pursue an open seat in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, and put money behind him. In the Orlando area, officials recruited and invested heavily in labor attorney Patricia Sigman. In that Orlando race, the two parties have already spent more than $1 million, combined. Senate Democrats are also defending incumbent Jose Javier Rodríguez of northeastern Miami-Dade, who won narrowly in 2016 and faces a well-funded GOP challenger, as well as an open seat in greater Tallahassee, recruiting Representative Loranne Ausley.

In Lewis’s District 20, party leaders tried to recruit Alex Sink, the state’s former chief financial officer and 2014 candidate for governor. Sink declined, and has endorsed Lewis. Lewis is beginning to rack up other meaningful endorsements, including four Senate incumbents—but Florida’s Senate has a 17-seat Democratic delegation, which means that with only seven weeks before the election, 13 of them are still AWOL. And she has received nothing from the official Senate Victory funding arm, the FDLCC.

Meanwhile, Lewis’s GOP opponent, former state representative Danny Burgess, has raised more than $270,000 so far to Lewis’s $44,000, and just went on television with his first ad.

Weirdly, even some of Lewis’s supporters are reluctant to talk about her struggle for funding. Several Lewis backers ignored my outreach. One incumbent senator referred me to Senate minority leader Gary Farmer, instead of returning my call. Farmer, who controls Democratic Senate spending and has not endorsed Lewis, did not return two messages. A representative from Senate Victory stressed that decisions about individual races are based on data, adding, “While Kathy Lewis is a great candidate, the numbers show better opportunities for pickups in other areas of the state.”

Most disturbing, Lewis, who is African American, says she’s been criticized for making race an issue, when she herself has, as far as I know or can determine via Google searches, done no such thing. The issue of race did move front and center in July, when a local white Democratic leader said on a Zoom call with Black Democrats that Lewis’s race was “not high on our list because of where the polling was. What we do is, we prioritize based on our overall goals. White, Black, brown—it doesn’t matter who that candidate is, it’s where they fall on our election priority list.” A local Black Democratic activist protested: “I just think any Black woman in the race right now stands a chance and should be given a little more money than you might think they need. I just feel that you should give them more money!”

It must be said: After this conversation drew national attention, Lewis’s endorsements by local Democratic leaders began to surge. Money, not so much.

Lewis supporter Dr, Fergie Reid Jr., of the group 90 for 90, has no qualms about discussing the role of race in the lack of support for Lewis. During his many phone calls advocating for recruited candidates, he intermittently heard the phrase “minority-access district,’’ which he took to mean majority-black (which Lewis’s district is not, though the number of nonwhite voters is continually climbing). And he said so, explaining that he understood that to be a Jim Crow euphemism for a “Black District”—or, alternatively, an “acceptable district for a Black person to pursue.” He received no pushback, he says, “only embarrassing affirmation.”

Whatever the role of race, many smart Democrats are increasingly questioning the Senate caucus’s neglect of Lewis’s campaign.

One Democratic operative who has worked in Florida said, “If you don’t compete, you can’t win. Senate District 20 should be a top target. It’s in the heart of the I-4 corridor that has seen strengthening support for Democrats this year, it saw strong Dem performance in 2018, and it could be the key to winning the Senate, when few competitive seats are up.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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