BONITA SPRINGS — After their best election year in more than two decades, Florida Democrats say they can finally build on their success to become politically relevant again.
If that story sounds familiar, it's because it is. They said the same after a good election in 2008, then suffered what may have been their worst election ever in 2010. But that's Florida, seemingly the swingiest of swing states. The state that took five weeks to decide the presidential election in 2000 was still waiting Wednesday morning to learn who it picked for president. Still, there are good reasons for Democrats to be optimistic when the focus turns to unseating Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
"Sometimes you have to prove to people you can win, to win," state Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said late Tuesday. "I think we have proven tonight what many people didn't think we could do."
There's no doubt that Florida is proving itself to be politically unpredictable. Two years ago Florida voters gave Republicans the governor's office, all three cabinet seats, a U.S. Senate seat and a super-majority in the Legislature while also booting four Democrats out of Congress. This year not only is Florida within a hair of falling into President Barack Obama's column one day late, but voters also took away Republicans' legislative super-majority and are sending four new Democrats to Congress — including liberal firebrand Alan Grayson, whom they booted out in 2010.
The Democrats had their successes despite some obstacles Republicans threw in the way. After Obama carried Florida in 2008 with a ground game that included strong advantages in voter registration efforts and in-person early voting, Republicans changed state law to make it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives and cut early voting days from 14 to eight. They also loaded up the ballot with anti-abortion, pro-church and anti-Obamacare questions designed to bring out conservative voters.
The state Republican Party also targeted three Supreme Court Justices accused of being liberals, yet voters retained all three by comfortable margins.
Obama's campaign responded by putting a stronger emphasis on absentee voting and doubling the number of staff to register voters and make sure they then actually vote.
Obama's election, combined with Democratic victories in Florida legislative and congressional races, the failed ballot questions and retention of the Supreme Court justices, makes it a bad year for Republicans.
"It should be a wake-up call to the Republican Party. There's obviously some work that needs to be done in the party to ensure a 2014 victory. If you're a Democrat in Florida, you should feel pretty good about yourself today," said Sarasota-based Republican political strategist Jamie Miller.
But he also pointed out that 2014 could yield a different outcome. Turnout won't be as high and the mood can change. One thing Republicans must do, he said, is do a better job of reaching out to Hispanics. Obama carried 60 percent of the Florida Hispanic vote, according to exit polls. That's a bump from the 57 percent in 2008. And the Hispanic population is growing. Latinos made up 12 percent of Floridians in 2008 and 14 percent in 2012.
Miller's advice to Republicans is to find middle ground on the immigration issue. He said it hurts when the far-right comes across as anti-Hispanic.
"When the tea party people hold a meeting and say, 'Let's send them home,' well, their home is on the next block," Miller said. "There has to be some reasonable way for Republicans to have that tea party movement, but not come up with this pitchfork and torches effect of we're going to run everybody out of the country."
And if Democrats want to build on their success, they must avoid becoming too confident, said David Beattie, a Fernandina Beach Democratic pollster.
While the Republican wave of 2010 won't likely be repeated, he said, citing constitutional amendments that have made the redistricting process fairer for Democrats, Beattie warned that doesn't mean the party can simply expect to beat Scott.
"There is a Democratic myth that any Democrat on the ballot beats Rick Scott and that's simply not true," Beattie said. "You need to be a better candidate with a better plan and a better vision for the state to beat Rick Scott."
He also pointed out that Scott's approval ratings, while low, have been slowly creeping up, partially because his office is rebranding his image and partially because the Republican Party has been pumping money into his re-election campaign for months.
"Advertising for the 2014 race and mailing and telephone calls started last year," Beattie said. "He's already been running."