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A socialist look at the Florida 2018 midterm results

Part one of two
Commentary by Dave Schneider |
November 23, 2018
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This is part one of a two-part series. See part two here.

With the recounts complete, the 2018 Florida midterm elections have ended. For all the sound and fury over uncounted ballots, the final results changed very little in the weeks since election night. Democrats lost in Florida, and the narrow margins only make the sting worse. The GOP and the reactionary big business interests they represent still control the governor’s mansion and the state legislature. But while little changed, this is hardly a return to the status quo. This analysis is for socialists in Florida to consider in shaping our strategy and tactics moving forward.

Historic campaign, disappointing results

The Florida Democratic Party has never run a candidate for governor as progressive as Andrew Gillum, nor has either party ever run an African American for the office. Indeed, Gillum won the nomination in a crowded field of billionaires, millionaires and establishment favorites, propelled to his unlikely victory by the African Americans and an insurgent push by young progressive activists. The energy and enthusiasm surrounding Gillum’s campaign – from the dozens of well-attended rallies to the historic voter turnout – jolted life in the moribund Florida Democratic Party, which typically runs white business centrists for governor.

In contrast, the Republican Party saw a pitch battle between establishment favorite Adam Putnam, the Commissioner of Agriculture, and former congressman Ron DeSantis, a virtually unknown Trump acolyte and Fox News contributor. Trump endorsed DeSantis early on, and his loyal base crushed Putnam in the primary. DeSantis, with the full support of Trump, ran a blatantly racist campaign aimed at highlighting the color of Gillum’s skin and stoking rural white anxieties. Significantly, most Republican political operatives in the state believed DeSantis had no chance of defeating Gillum. Some even publicly defected in a bid to bring the ‘Trump wing’ of the GOP to heel in time for the 2020 primary.

Voter turnout broke state records for midterm elections. Gillum flipped four counties that went for Trump in 2016, most notably Duval County (Jacksonville). Almost every poll gave Gillum a two to eight-point lead over DeSantis. But recount drama aside, it was clear on election night that DeSantis had narrowly defeated Gillum.

Senator Bill Nelson performed slightly better than Gillum in his re-election contest against Governor Rick Scott, but that’s racism at work, pure and simple. Most polls showed Nelson trailing far behind Scott before Gillum won the nomination. That the Senate race was even close reflects the bump in voter enthusiasm, especially among Black voters, that Gillum’s campaign generated for Democratic candidates. Nelson probably picked off a few more votes than Gillum among racist whites, particularly in southwest Florida, who just couldn’t stomach the idea of a Black governor.

Notably, Nikki Fried won the Commissioner of Agriculture race, making her the only Democrat to hold a state cabinet position in Florida. Fried, a young lawyer from the University of Florida, won the support of women and young voters, who supported her pro-legalization stances on marijuana. Like Nelson, she certainly benefited from the Gillum bump too.

How do we as socialists make sense of these results? What lessons can we draw from the outcome, and what does it mean for the future of the people’s movements in Florida?

In an 1895 introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggle in France, Frederick Engels outlined a useful way for socialists and revolutionaries to look at elections in a capitalist democracy.

“And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of votes it increased in equal measure the workers' certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness - if this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, then it would still have been more than enough. But it has done much more than this. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people, where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it opened to our representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in Parliament and to the masses without, with quite other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings.”

In the interests of “accurately informing us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties,” and to “provide us with a measure of proportion for our actions,” let’s examine the Florida midterm results - with the understanding that Engels was talking about the election of socialists, not candidates of Democratic Party.

Duval goes blue

Gillum won every county with a major city (over 100,000 people). Indeed, it was the backbone of his support. But Trump’s appeal to the racist and backward cultural prejudices of rural Florida won the day for the GOP.

For the first time since 1986, the Democratic candidate for Florida governor won a majority in Duval County, which shares a consolidated government with Jacksonville. Typically a Republican stronghold, Duval County voted 51.71% for Gillum (196,537 votes) versus 47.32% for DeSantis (179,869 votes). Enthusiasm for Gillum was high here, especially among Jacksonville’s Black community. He earned about 4300 more votes than Senate candidate and three-term incumbent Bill Nelson.

Although Duval was the only county in northeast Florida to go for Gillum, he performed better in neighboring counties than past Democrats. The efforts of progressive activists in places like Saint Johns County, along with Gillum’s decision to hold rallies in these areas, boosted turnout.

Unfortunately, this miniature ‘blue wave’ it didn’t translate into wins for Democrats - locally or statewide. It wasn’t enough to put Gillum or Nelson over the top, which speaks to the sheer volume of white rural votes DeSantis received. Even in local races, the ‘blue wave’ didn’t translate into Democrat wins, seen in the fact that Mia Jones, a popular African American progressive state representative, still lost her countywide election for tax collector. We will revisit the Duval County results later.

White-minority rule in Florida’s rural counties

The main pillar of support for DeSantis and Scott came from Florida’s rural, majority-white counties. Of the top ten counties by voter turnout percentage, not a single one contains a major metropolitan area. DeSantis won nine of these ten counties, in most cases by double-digit margins. Sumter County, for instance, which has a population of just 125,000 people, saw the highest turnout in Florida at 77.68%, with DeSantis capturing 70% of the vote. The only county out of the ten to go for Gillum was Gadsden County, which is the state’s only majority-Black county and neighbors Gillum’s home in Tallahassee.

Florida’s rural counties saw massive turnout and enthusiasm for Trump in 2016, ultimately delivering him the state’s 27 electoral votes. Spurred on by dramatic intervention by Trump in the 2018 race, these counties turned out again for DeSantis and Scott, providing them large-enough margins to stave off the massive vote totals secured in the cities.

While Democrats in the past have largely left these rural counties uncontested, Gillum did spend considerable time campaigning there, holding relatively large rallies in GOP-dominated counties like Saint Johns, Putnam and even Sumter County. But without any stable on-the-ground organization, along with decades of neglect by Democratic campaigns, DeSantis handily defeated Gillum in these areas.

Florida’s rural, majority-white counties exercise undue influence over the state’s politics and remain key to the GOP’s dominance. Sparsely populated, they carry few votes on their own.

How do they do this? Florida’s sprawling prison system and high incarceration rates primarily benefit rural counties, particularly those surrounding metropolitan areas. They house most of the state’s prisons, making law enforcement and corrections facilities the largest employers in many of these counties. This creates a natural base of mass support for the GOP’s ‘law and order’ rhetoric and policies of mass incarceration.

This naturally reactionary base sees its political weight boosted by racist redistricting laws. Districts for Florida’s federal and state representatives are drawn based on U.S. Census data, which counts inmates as part of the county where they are incarcerated. These inmates are disproportionately Black, disproportionately from cities, and unable to cast a vote, yet they still count towards the county’s proportional representation – a more egregious version of the “three-fifths compromise.”

For other counties, particularly in and around central Florida, agriculture predominates. Whites have made up most of the large and mid-sized landowners in Florida long before the tourism boom of the 1970s, and they remain in control today. While Latino farmworkers comprise a sizeable mass base in these counties, most are undocumented, unorganized, poverty-stricken and cannot vote. Nevertheless, they provide the same population boost to these rural agricultural counties as inmates during redistricting.

The result is that these rural counties, overwhelmingly white and predisposed to the GOP’s policies, are apportioned extra seats in the state legislature and Congress. GOP politicians have cultivated relationships and ties to landowners, employers and local power brokers capable of turning out votes at a high rate.

Villages of the damned

DeSantis also saw huge turnout among old, white retirees. Florida has a large population of retirees from northern states, who move to Florida to avoid taxes. Many congregate in insular, retired communities, the largest of which is the Villages in rural Sumter County, which again saw the largest turnout by percentage in the state.

These retirees are overwhelmingly white and affluent, and they bring their prejudices and anti-social attitudes with them from the north. Brainwashed day-in, day-out by Fox News and right-wing media, they have nothing but time on their hands to vote for Republicans in every election. Democratic appeals to retirees in the Villages have proven ineffective in the past. They don’t care about Social Security cuts by Mitch McConnell - they care about NFL players not standing for the national anthem and scare-mongering around the migrant caravan.