Florida Democrats already pointing fingers as they steel themselves for November

ORLANDO, Fla. — Former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz was heralded as a turnaround artist when he took the helm of the Florida Democratic Party. The big question nearly a year later is whether he’s done enough to help Democrats win in 2022.

Diaz, tasked with rebuilding the state party ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, has not made much visible progress and is confronting a potential onslaught from Republicans.

The Florida GOP recently overtook Democrats in voter registration numbers for the first time in decades. Gov. Ron DeSantis is demolishing his three Democratic challengers in fundraising for next year’s governors race. And Democrats have yet to recruit a full slate of candidates to challenge the three Republicans who sit on the state Cabinet.

“If Florida has a bloodbath come November … that’s going to be a concern, not just for myself but I’m sure for many Democrats,” said State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Miami Gardens Democrat.

POLITICO interviewed more than 20 Florida Democrats, including elected officials, Democratic National Committee members, activists and others about Diaz and his performance so far. Many were supportive, saying that Diaz has to overcome internal divisions that have constantly hindered Florida Democrats. Some, however, were less flattering, using terms such as “MIA” to describe Diaz’s term so far.

Concerns about Diaz come as Florida Democrats face an existential crisis. Some Republicans are privately confident that 2022 could be the year they consign Democrats to a permanent minority status and remove any lasting doubts about whether Florida is a red state. What Diaz does now will play a key role in determining that outcome.

The angst surrounding Florida Democrats was on display during their big Leadership Blue conference held this past weekend at an Orlando resort hotel as they delved into everything from organizing to message training.

During caucus meetings and breakout sessions, Democrats fretted over whether they were doing enough outreach to voters — such as those in Black churches well ahead of Election Day — and whether Florida was still competitive.

“I call B.S.,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) said about the state’s battleground status. There were even rumors of a push for a no-confidence vote against Diaz at the state executive committee meeting, although it never materialized.

“There are always people who aren’t happy,” said Terrie Rizzo, the former Democratic Party chair who stepped down following the disastrous 2020 elections that saw the party lose two Miami-area congressional seats while former President Donald Trump made major in-roads with the state’s Hispanic voters.

Multiple Democrats said they have noticed tangible changes and credit Diaz for being more transparent about spending and budget issues.

“Finally I think we are on the right track to get this party to where we need to be,” said Cesar Ramirez, the president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida, who credited Diaz with listening to different caucuses within the party and pledging to let them be part of policy discussions.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), who are both running for governor, praised the job that Diaz is doing as well. Fried said she was “optimistic and hopeful” that Democrats will be successful in 2022. But others are worried if the party is doing enough to sway voters.

“We’re not in a hole anymore, but what else?” said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who says there’s “more stability” in the party previously but she remains worried about messaging and field operations.

In an interview, Diaz conceded that the 2022 election cycle will be a “rebuilding year.” He also pointed to some of his accomplishments, like wiping out substantial debt that he inherited. It was a financial situation so dire that it prompted layoffs at the start of the year. He’s since gone on a hiring spree intended to boost field operations well in advance of the elections.

“Those plans take time,” Diaz said. “Am I happy with where we are? Not as happy as I would like to be. But yes I’m happy. I think we have done more in an off year than the party has ever done.”

Diaz says he remains “optimistic” that they can win in 2022. But he also says that nationally Democrats need Florida to remain in play because it creates an easier path to winning the White House in 2024 than scratching out narrow wins in states such as Arizona and Georgia.

“If we win Florida, it’s over — and Florida is winnable,” Diaz said.

But many Democrats fret that they are not doing enough to persuade voters about why they should vote for them.

“I still have the question of how we can pass minimum wage and Amendment 4 and elect candidates diametrically vocally opposed to them,” said Sean Shaw, a former legislator and Democratic National Committee member, referring to recent ballot initiatives that Florida voters approved, including one that restored voting rights to most convicted felons.

Some Democrats interviewed consistently raised questions about how effectively and often the party is communicating with voters — as well as with some rank-and-file grassroots groups. Diaz does not do a lot of media appearances and the party does not respond rapidly to the news of the day.

One clear example about messaging came this past weekend. Their big fundraising gala, which Diaz was responsible for organizing, featured as the keynote speaker House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement helped Joe Biden’s campaign. While the gala itself attracted an estimated 650 people, Clyburn’s event was not widely publicized and hardly any media showed up, including local television stations.

Making matters worse for Democrats at the conference, most state Senate Democrats skipped the marquee event because they had a Las Vegas fundraiser that was already scheduled. Just four Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation showed up to speak.

Despite all the chatter about his role so far, Diaz said there’s a way to end it.

“Winning cures a lot of problems,” he said.

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