Attendees react during a campaign rally for Florida’s Democratic candidates in Miami, Florida, U.S. (Photographer: Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg)

Florida Democrats Stung by Midterms Pin Hopes on Demographics

(Bloomberg) -- Florida continues to be the state that dashes Democratic dreams.

The nation’s biggest swing state has both rewarded and punished the party over the years in a series of nail-bitingly close elections, from the extended recount in 2000 that delivered the presidency to George W. Bush to Donald Trump’s 1.2 percentage point victory there in 2016.

Florida Democrats Stung by Midterms Pin Hopes on Demographics

In 2018 it was punishment again: a rising Democratic star appears to have been taken down by a Trump-style Republican, and the party is on the cusp of losing another Senate seat. Fittingly, the difference in both races is less than a percentage point -- and narrowing, as the last votes continue to be tallied.

Democrats were counting on Andrew Gillum, the 39-year-old black mayor of Tallahassee, to create enough energy among voters in the governor’s race to pull along Bill Nelson, the 76-year-old incumbent senator who Republicans criticized as a backbencher. Yet now the country’s third most populous state could continue to be governed by a Republican -- as it has since Jeb Bush was elected in 1998 -- and Nelson has called for a recount.

“Obviously it was excruciatingly close,” said Jim Davis, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP who served in the U.S. House as a Democrat and ran for governor of Florida in 2006. “It continues to be a long slog.”

Looking to Future

It’s another painful lesson for the state’s Democrats who are just starting to study Tuesday’s disappointments, even as they continue fighting for the long-shot recount to keep Rick Scott, the current Republican governor, from adding one more seat to the GOP’s Senate majority. Now the biggest hopes for Democrats to eventually swing the Sunshine State into their territory are the demographic shifts that got them so close -- but not quite -- to statewide victory this week.

Candidates can ask for a recount if the margin of their loss is less than half a percentage point, and both Nelson and Gillum on Thursday urged voters to contact their supervisor of elections to make sure all provisional ballots were counted. Gillum, after initially conceding defeat on election night, now says he awaits the final outcome, including the possibility of a recount.

There was some evidence Tuesday that changes in the electorate did and will help Democrats, perhaps most significantly in the ballot measure that will restore voting rights to felons who have served their time. Davis warned that there could be some efforts from Republicans to “stifle” or delay that measure so that its impact will be lessened in the 2020 presidential race.

“That’s going to be a very important shift in the voter base going forward,” Davis said. “The next election will be the first one where these people get to vote.”

House Seats

Democrats also took heart in the two GOP-held House seats that turned blue on Tuesday, both in South Florida where the Cuban community traditionally supported Republicans. Cole Leiter, a spokesman for the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said these two wins represent a “generational change” in the region and bode well for a new Democratic stronghold in the districts that include part of Miami-Dade County.

Donna Shalala, former secretary of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton, won the Miami seat vacated by the retirement of Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which was the top Florida target for Democrats. The bigger achievement for Democrats was Debbie Mucarsel-Powell’s win over moderate Republican Carlos Curbelo, robbing the GOP of one of its young Hispanic rising stars.

Those races will be on the ballot again in 2020, and are now Democrats’ to lose. Democrats won’t have another shot at a Florida Senate seat until Republican Marco Rubio is up for re-election in 2022.

Presidential Race

Yet Florida -- and its 29 electoral votes -- is one of the handful of swing states that will be a high priority for Democrats when they try to unseat Trump in 2020. Davis said that in what should be a solidly purple state, the more conservative parts in north Florida are getting redder, and the challenge for Democrats will be to continue boosting turnout in the blue parts of the state like Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

This will be a challenge for the local Democratic Party, which largely relies on outside support for national elections. The state legislature continues to be controlled by Republicans, which makes it harder for Democrats to maintain constant contact with their voters, according to Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant based in Florida.

“At the party level, Florida Democrats are broke and a shell company so it makes it difficult to build,” Patton said. “They have zero bench in Florida.”

Trump’s Impact

For Republicans, Tuesday’s results make a strong case for GOP candidates to stick closely to Trump, despite his controversies and aggressive stance against illegal immigration. GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis won the Republican primary by casting himself as Trump’s candidate, and that association appears to have carried him through the general election.

Trump held two rallies in Florida in the week before the election and emphasized his favorite campaign themes, especially warning against the alleged socialist agenda of the Democrats and a caravan of Central American migrants making their way through Mexico. Even though there is a large Latino population in Florida, many of them came to the U.S. legally after fleeing communism in Cuba and a socialist government in Venezuela.

“I think we learned that Florida is going to Florida and be close,” Patton said. “We also learned a base campaign works and that ‘the middle’ in a midterm doesn’t really exist.”

Local Issues

That is especially true this year, since the issues that dominated the midterm should have played to Democrats’ strengths in Florida, with health care, immigration, gun control and the environment on the top of voters’ minds. Miami-Dade County has some of the state’s highest levels of enrollment in the Affordable Care Act’s insurance markets. A massive algae bloom has hurt coastal tourism this year, and a high school shooting in Parkland prompted new debate about the state’s gun laws.

These will continue to be the issues voters care about when Trump is actually on the ballot in two years, Davis said, although “for better or for worse,” he will have two more years of his unpredictable presidency to run on. Democrats are hoping that some of the close races that tipped into their column this week are a better harbinger of things to come than the Florida races they couldn’t quite pull off.

“There’s a lot for Democrats to be excited about in yesterday’s election,” Davis said. “But unfortunately you have to look outside of Florida to see it.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.