How Can Democrats Finally Win In Florida?

This is the way...

Welcome to the Tuesday evening edition of Progressives Everywhere!

While Donald Trump tries to stage a coup with the help of his utterly pathetic Republican underlings, we’re looking to the future.

Thankfully, on January 20th, when Trump is dragged out of the White House, Democrats will control the presidency and at least one chamber of Congress. But plenty of challenges will remain, even if the party pulls off a miracle and takes back the Senate (donate to Georgia candidates and activists here!). Democrats got creamed on the state level and lost plenty of federal races that they should have won, and given the way our diffuse government system functions, those things need to change if we want to enact any real substantive progressive changes.

The debate over who is most responsible for the Democratic down-ballot collapse is already underway, as I outlined in Sunday’s edition of this newsletter. It’s going to require a nuanced and in some cases regionalized approach to rebuild from the wreckage, especially in places like Florida, where Democrats were just absolutely gutted.

Tonight, I’m diving into the politics of the Sunshine State with the Florida Democratic Party’s brightest young star. The conversation is specific to Florida, but the strategies we discuss are applicable to every elected officeholder in the country.

How Can Democrats Win In Florida (And Everywhere Else?)

Florida State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-47) was interrupted twice during our phone conversation early this past Friday morning. 

The first time, Eskamani, who was already out for a walk in her Orlando neighborhood, was greeted by a friendly neighbor (and, by extension, a constituent). The second interruption came courtesy of a fellow member of the House Democratic Caucus, who was blowing up her phone with irate text messages.

Both interactions were proof that she was succeeding at her job.

Last week was a disastrous one for the Florida Democratic Party. Not only did Donald Trump nearly triple his 2016 victory margin in the state, but Republicans also cleaned up in down-ballot races, expanding leads in both chambers of the state legislature. Eskamani, who flipped a red State House seat in 2018 without much help from the state party, was one of the few bright spots, drubbing her opponent by 18 points. She even won two precincts in her district that voted for Trump. 

Later in the week, after holding her tongue the entire election cycle, she took to social media to call out some of the dysfunction and corruption in the state Democratic Party.

Instead of showing a willingness to listen and change what was obviously a failing strategy, many of her colleagues came after her. And while party unity is important during election season, no one could argue that a brutally honest post-mortem was going to cause any more damage — you can sink a ship that’s already capsized.

“There's already a small group of colleagues that are saying progressivism is the problem, but progressives didn't apply for a PPP loan — the moderate Democrats did that,” she says, pointing out the stupefying own goal the state party scored this summer. Amid public outrage and anger within the party ranks, Democrats eventually returned the loan, which was worth at least $780,000, but the scandal followed them all election season

“What a clear way to demonstrate how disconnected you are from everyday working people,” she says, still aggrieved by the egregious misstep by party leaders. “[That’s how[ that label of elitist that comes up — you apply for a PPP loan while the small business next door is struggling to stay open, and your excuse is that you talked to your attorneys about it and they told you it was chill? I mean, wow, how out of touch are you right now?”

Eskamani is a progressive, especially by Florida standards, but unlike the battle being waged by Democrats at the national level, her criticisms actually aren’t particularly ideological. She knows that supporting a Green New Deal or defunding the police won’t work in her district — “I live in Florida, not Brooklyn,” she laughs — so her environmental and criminal justice reform proposals are tailored to what is possible at this moment where she serves. Instead, her frustration is mostly focused on the campaign tactics and approach to government service that have dominated a Democratic Party entering its third decade out of power in Florida. 

The PPP loan was one of three main attacks that Republicans lodged against Democrats in Florida this cycle; the other two, Eskamani says, were tagging Democrats as socialists and alleging that they wanted to defund the police, even if no Democrat ever uttered those words. The party suffered big losses even in traditional Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade County not only because they gave Republicans such a big head start this summer and then didn’t do much to catch up, but because leaders disappear when they’re not asking for votes.

“There was no proactive messaging campaign to counter any of that from the Biden campaign, let alone the Florida Democratic Party,” she charges. “And then there was the lack of field operation, so they couldn’t even cut through the noise because they’re not at the doors, not building relationships long term with their constituents. All that is a combination for major, major losses.”

The campaign volunteers, she stresses, worked their hearts out. But for the most part, they got zero support from those in charge.

So, how should Democrats campaign?

Like other Democratic candidates, Eskamani suspended her campaign’s door-to-door canvassing and in-person events when COVID-19 hit. But unlike other Democrats, she’d already cemented her presence in the community. Eskamani declared her candidacy 18 months before her first election, began canvassing the Orlando area, and never really stopped until the virus required her to do so more than two and a half years later. 

At that point, her staff began making wellness checks on the constituents in her middle-class district, which also has a large contingent of working-class residents who are employed at the area’s major theme parks and resorts. She grew up in Orlando, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, and her constituents’ struggles felt personal.

“I was on the ground, actually helping small businesses and unemployed Floridians, upwards of 30,000 of them, pushing back against evictions,” Eskamani says. “I gave up my state salary to help pay for people's rent and different expenses. I have an American Express bill coming up this month that I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to pay, because I paid for so many hotel and motel rooms. Some of these folks are not even my constituents, they just live nearby.”

It shouldn’t be all that complicated — getting out into the community and figuring out what they care about and need is good government 101. It is not just in the job description; as a state representative, it’s literally in her job title. Good government is good politics. And for candidates who don’t have the financial flexibility to help pay the rent, campaigning on that very fact wouldn’t have hurt. 

While rejecting Democrats almost entirely, Floridians did vote overwhelmingly to approve Amendment 2, which will raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.

Hardly any prominent Democrats in Florida backed the ballot proposition, a baffling decision even for cautious politicians. The state party as a whole did technically recommend voting yes on the proposal in its online voter guide, but they buried it in an unwieldy digital document buried deep on a single website. 

“It was never advertised, and a recommendation is not the same as someone running on increasing the minimum wage,” Eskamani says. “Every candidate should have been on the stoop saying ‘workers deserve a raise, families in my district deserve a raise, and this is good for the economy during this pandemic.’ The best stimulus is money in people's pockets. Corporations got a half a billion-dollar tax break from Florida in April and they were complaining about how raising the minimum wage would hurt them.”

The state party’s fealty to corporate power comes up a lot — she says Florida Democrats are happy to take the “crumbs that corporations give us,” even though most corporate cash goes to Florida Republicans. But Eskamani saves special animosity for the conservative consultant class that she says keep Democrats from fighting for progressive policies or even getting face time with constituents.

“I know COVID-19 presented challenges, but it was not an excuse to stop field operations, it should have been motivation to reinvent it and to think of new ways to talk to your constituents and to engage with your voters,” Eskamani says. “You don't just show up when there's a campaign, you show up all the time. If you're leaning on consultants for advice, no consultant is going to recommend field work to you... field work is not where consultants make money unless you're hiring them to do field. And if you have a volunteer-driven organization, no consultant makes money.”

Eskamani, meanwhile, uses the same few vendors and is involved in every mailer and piece of literature, making sure they have the specific messages she’s trying to convey. This summer, her campaign returned to a modified version of canvassing, first dropping off campaign literature and then doing social distanced door knocking. In total, they made over 40,000 calls and knocked on 33,000 doors, reuniting with voters who they’d helped with paying rent, navigating Florida’s broken unemployment system, and dealing with the healthcare crisis. 

No matter what the GOP threw at her — and they threw a lot of crap at her, an entire website’s worth — her constituents saw right through it.

“Folks really rallied around us and rejected that message because they knew who we were,” she says. “Because we'd already talked to them, we were knocking on their door. We saw them at community events. The relationship was built and maintained.”

Other candidates who did not do that kind of field work and did not support the specific minimum wage and other policies were not so lucky when it came to attack ads.

“If you asked an everyday person what is the difference between a Democrat and a Republican, they’ll be like, where is it? They’ll ask how is my life going to get better if I vote for you over that other person? That’s such a problematic place to be.”

So what now?

Eskamani has already called for an entirely new leadership team for the Florida Democratic Party. She also hasn’t discouraged social media suggestions that she run for governor in 2022 against the very unpopular incumbent, Ron DeSantis, who has screwed up COVID-19 more than any other state executive and is now pushing a deeply racist “Stand Your Ground” law extension.

Whether or not she runs, Eskamani wants to see the party get off the corporate cash and expand its worldview. It needs better constituent service, more defined messages, the end of consultants that work on expensive retainers, and more diverse candidates. 

“When I first said I was running [for office], party leaders thought I was too loud and too brown,” Eskamani says. “They didn't think I would raise enough money to be competitive. And as soon as I raised $30k in my first month, that changed. It’s frustrating because it boxes out a lot of strong candidates that have great potential, but because they don't fit the stereotypical image of what a winner it looks like, they don't get that buy-in.”

It all comes back to knowing the concerns of the community. Her literature is all localized; for example, her literature about gun control and LGBTQ rights hone in on Pulse nightclub, which is in her district, while she tends to focus on clean energy when addressing the environment. There are no platitudes; many of the failed Republican attacks on her were based on her outspokenness. It will all flow from there. 

Once they get that community buy-in, loyalty and patience will follow. When the “defund the police” slogan is thrown at them, instead of pledging loyalty to law enforcement or triangulating in ways that please literally nobody, Democrats in swing districts will have the room to be frank and discuss the issues in ways that work for their districts. 

Above all, Eskamani says, “you just have to lead with your values.”

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