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Florida Democrats Try To Regroup After Big November Losses

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In state capitals across the country, Democrats are worried. That may seem odd following an election in which Joe Biden won the White House and Democrats won control of the Senate. But in other races, Republicans did well in 2020, picking up seats in Congress and in state legislatures. That was especially true in Florida, where NPR's Greg Allen reports Republican wins left the state's Democratic Party demoralized and broke.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's more than a year and a half before the 2022 midterms. But already, volunteers are staffing phone banks to start organizing Florida's Democratic voters.

KEN TELESCO: We're a Democratic organization just calling around to make sure that you are registered to vote as a Democrat.

ALLEN: Ken Telesco is making calls with Field Team 6, a Democratic group focused on a few key states, including Florida. On this day, the phone bank is targeting Democrats in Republican Congressman Carlos Gimenez's South Florida district. It's one of two congressional seats in Florida formerly held by Democrats that were flipped Republican in November's election. Donald Trump carried Florida in November, and his coattails helped other Republican candidates. The GOP, already in control of the state legislature, picked up several additional seats. Florida Democrats were left pointing fingers and wondering what went wrong.

MANNY DIAZ: We are challenged right now because we lost and lost convincingly.

ALLEN: Manny Diaz is the person charged with picking up the pieces and rebuilding the state party. Diaz, a former mayor of Miami, says when he campaigned for the chairman's job, he didn't know how bad things were, especially with the party finances. After the election, Florida's Democratic Party was broke and deep in debt. Employees found out their health insurance had been cancelled. Diaz says that was his first challenge.

DIAZ: It was like survival. And I'm talking about, you know, the kind of survival that you're involved in with counting paper clips.

ALLEN: Diaz says the bleeding has stopped. Health insurance has been reinstated, and he's begun talking to donors about plans to make Democrats competitive in statewide races. That's a major challenge. Although Barack Obama carried Florida twice, few other Democrats have been able to win in statewide races. Diaz notes that Florida's last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, was elected in 1994.

DIAZ: God almighty, right? We've lost, by my count, since 2000. The last 34 elections, I think, for statewide offices, we've lost 27.

ALLEN: Despite that history and last year's losses, Diaz believes Florida is still a swing state, one that can go Democratic in presidential and off-year elections. He has an ambitious plan to open more offices and hire at least eight field directors with one primary goal - registering new Democratic voters. That's something Florida's Democratic Party hasn't done much recently.

Steve Schale is a Democratic strategist.

STEVE SCHALE: In 2008 and 2012, Democrats had a over 500,000-voter lead among registered voters. Today it's under 100,000. That's just a function of not doing the basic blocking and tackling of going out and registering people to vote.

ALLEN: What Florida needs, Schale believes, is a sustained voter engagement operation similar to the one spearheaded by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Diaz, Schale thinks, is on the right track. Democratic State Representative Anna Eskamani believes Democrats have another problem. Eskamani, a 30-year-old progressive who represents the Orlando area, is one of the Democrats mulling a possible bid against Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. She thinks many of her party's potential candidates are too conservative on economic issues important to voters.

ANNA ESKAMANI: If you ask them about a $15 minimum wage or you ask them about earned sick time or fixing the unemployment system, how bold are they going to be to actually directly address everyday people's needs?

ALLEN: Another challenge for Democrats is that, historically speaking, midterms usually don't turn out well for the party that's in the White House. Jessica Post with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee says the last time a president's party picked up seats in a midterm election was in 2002. At that time, George W. Bush was a popular president who had just guided the country through a national crisis. She believes she sees a similar storyline developing this cycle.

JESSICA POST: President Biden is passing a very popular piece of legislation, the American Rescue Plan. He's rolling out a vaccine.

ALLEN: It's possible, Democrats say, that this time, history may be on their side.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.