Democrats had a good Election Day in most of the nation but, despite some close statewide races, they stumbled again in Florida and now face a major power vacuum.
With Gov. Rick Scott taking down U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Florida Democrats can’t point to a single elected official as the face of their party.
That didn’t stop Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo from trying to single out incoming state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried last week.
“Nikki will be champion for all Floridians, working to ensure Floridians have access to the medicine they need, protecting families by ensuring firearm background checks are upheld, working with our farmers to ensure Florida continues to have access to safe, American grown food and fighting for land and water regulations that protect our environment,” said Rizzo. “Democrats and Floridians need her voice in the Cabinet.”
Fried has plenty of strengths to be sure but she is a political novice who will be busy learning the ropes as she takes over a state department which employs thousands of Floridians. She’ll also be a top target for Republicans who control every other part of the state government.
Outside of Fried, Florida Democrats had another win as they picked up two congressional seats in Miami Dade. Incoming U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., will garner far more attention than the average congressional freshman due to her serving as secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton back in the 1990s and from leading the University of Miami. But Shalala will turn 78 in February and will be more focused on her new task than serving as the statewide face of her party.
The rest of the delegation doesn’t look poised to fill in the gap. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., has a high profile but she is still tainted from her leadership of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the left hasn’t forgiven her for undermining U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I-Vt., presidential bid. Most of the other Democrats in the Florida House delegation–including U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., who has a higher profile due to his service as governor and holding two other statewide offices–are far more focused on Capitol Hill than the Sunshine State.
As for the Democrats who lost statewide bids, Nelson looks headed into retirement but outgoing Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum shows no sign of going to the political sidelines. After his close loss to incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis, Gillum could follow the playbook that Jeb Bush used after losing by the skin of his teeth to Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1994. Bush stayed engaged in politics and issues at the state and national levels. But he also grew far more active in communities across Florida, including helping launch the state’s first charter school. It paid off handsomely in 1998 as Bush faced no primary opposition and went out to rout Democrat Buddy MacKay. Of course, Chiles faced term limits in 1998–something DeSantis won’t have to worry about until 2026.
Still, there’s a chance for Gillum to be the face of the party. But he’s going to have to work for it, especially if Fried is vying for the same role in the years to come. For the moment though, Florida Democrats are headed back to the drawing board–and this time they can’t rely on Nelson or former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., before him to be the face of the party.