Democratic activists' hopeful down-ballot blitz in Florida pays off up-ballot
By WILL MCDUFFIE, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) -- Scarred by narrow defeats at the ballot box in recent years, Democrats in Florida are planning a different approach this fall: Compete everywhere, no matter the odds.
With primaries being held Tuesday in the Sunshine State, Democrats are touting the fact they have a candidate on the ballot in 140 out of 141 state House and Senate races, a strategy activists there say will spur Democratic turnout this fall, boosting Joe Biden and helping the party chip away at its deficit in both chambers of the state Legislature.
The effort was conceived by Democratic activist Fergie Reid, Jr., who led a campaign in Virginia to register voters and recruit Democratic candidates, which culminated last year in the party's wresting control of the statehouse in Richmond.
The same, Reid believes, is possible in Florida.
"Florida is on the razor's edge," Reid said in an interview with ABC News. "It's not some inherent advantage that Republicans have. Democrats are just not playing hard enough."
In March, noticing that 33 state House and Senate races lacked Democratic candidates, Reid, who lives in California, enlisted activists on the ground to recruit Democrats to challenge for those seats. By the filing deadline in June, his team had filled each race. (One House candidate was disqualified from her race because of a technicality with her filing paperwork; she is challenging in court).
As of June 30, registered Democrats in Florida outnumbered registered Republicans by more than 250,000, according to the Florida Department of State's website.
The problem is, many rarely see enough Democrats on their ballots.
In 2016, 21 state House and Senate races went uncontested by Democrats, according to Florida Division of Elections archives. Donald Trump won Florida by only 113,000 votes, capturing 29 electoral votes in a key swing state that likely will prove critical again in 2020.
Democrats in Florida have suffered other losses by the thinnest of margins. In 2018, Republican Rick Scott edged incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson by about 10,000 votes, while Ron DeSantis beat out Democrat Andrew Gillum in the race for governor, 49.6% to 49.2%.
Democratic activists have said flooding local races with candidates can erase those margins by producing a "reverse coattail" effect.
"The further down-ballot you have candidates, the more it helps up-ballot," Reid said. When Democrats don't have a Democrat to vote for, "They have to vote for the Republican, or just choose not to vote. And those people who choose not to vote, maybe they just don't go vote at all. And that causes depression at the top."
Down-ballot candidates can engage voters in a way candidates running for statewide or national office typically don't, according to Janelle Christensen, president of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida, and a key player in the effort to recruit candidates to run for Florida's state legislature.
"When people have relationships with people locally who are running for office, they feel more engaged in the election process. They're more likely to vote, they're more likely to pay attention," Christensen explained.
If any part of the state reveals that to be true this fall, it's the Panhandle, where Republicans have largely outperformed Democrats.
Escambia County sits on the western edge of the Panhandle, a narrow, vertical strip of land hugging Alabama from the Gulf of Mexico to Georgia. It is part of the State Senate's 1st District, in which Democrats have not run a candidate since 2008. In 2016, Doug Broxson, a Republican, won 99.8% of the vote, running virtually unopposed.
This year, up for reelection, he has a Democratic challenger, Karen Butler, an Air Force veteran who was recruited by Reid and Christensen.
Butler, a real estate agent specializing in military relocation, believes her background will help her connect with voters in a district with several military bases.
She also thinks she can break Republicans' tight grip on the district.
"Because you haven't had a Democrat challenge it, you don't know how strong that hold is," she added.
Lilly Eubanks, chairwoman of the Escambia County Democratic Party, said there's a level of excitement among Democrats in her county not previously seen. While some of the enthusiasm comes from the national ticket -- Eubanks said she's been inundated with requests for Biden-Harris yard signs -- she attributes much of it to an increasing number of Democrats, like Butler, running in down-ballot races in the county.
"Democrats are coming out of the woodwork," she said.
Beyond boosting Biden, Reid and Christensen hope that running more candidates will produce gains in the state Legislature, where Republicans hold a six-seat advantage in the Senate and a 26-seat advantage in the House.
The strategy, they said, is simple: The more races you compete in, the better your odds of winning seats.
They worry, however, that Democrats in the state have historically ignored races the party deemed unwinnable, focusing attention and funds on more competitive races in the state's urban centers, allowing Republican candidates to run up the score in rural counties.
"The argument I push back on the most is, 'That district is not winnable,'" Reid said. "That argument is asinine to me. How can you expect to win if you don't play?"
That argument, though, surfaced last month when State Sen. Gary Farmer, the incoming Democratic Leader in the chamber, published a tweet that dismissed races like Butler's in District 1 as "long shots" and suggesting that the party should not fund them.
"I'm guided by science and reality. Contesting every race is great if you have $ to do so. We simply don't & won't until we achieve majority," he wrote.
Farmer didn't respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
"I disagree with him," said Eubanks, of Escambia County. "Because if Democrats don't have anyone to vote for, when are we ever going to get more people who will run for office and be able to win seats?"
On Wednesday, with the primaries over, the Florida Democratic Party plans to introduce new investments as part of its "elections program," created in June to assist Democrats in down-ballot races statewide. Rosy Gonzalez Speers, the FDP's senior adviser for down-ballot elections, is optimistic that the party can flip some state legislative seats blue, while also boosting turnout for Biden.
"We're going to fight for every single seat that we can," she told ABC News. "It's going to be extremely challenging and very difficult to do. In an unprecedented year like this, we're going to have to wait and see, but we're going to fight to do the best that we can."
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