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Republican gubernatorial candidate for Florida Ron DeSantis waves to the crowd during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, on November 8, 2022. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images

‘Complete Bloodbath’: What Just Happened in Florida?

Florida didn’t have a red wave, it had a red tsunami.
Cameron Joseph
Washington, US

The Republicans’ promised red wave may have been a ripple nationally, but in Florida, Tuesday’s election was a tsunami. 

Republicans swept statewide offices for the first time in almost 150 years. Gov. Ron DeSantis was re-elected governor by more than 1.5 million votes and nearly 20 points, just four years after narrowly winning the governorship by 33,000 votes. Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Rep. Val Demings, running only slightly behind DeSantis, in a state where the last Senate race in 2018 was decided by just over 10,000 votes

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“It was a complete bloodbath,” state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando-area Democrat, told VICE News. 

Florida Republicans also picked up four seats in the U.S. House (partially thanks to gerrymandering), swept every statewide race by double digits, and expanded their already substantial majorities in the state legislature. 

And on a night where Republicans fell far short of their midterm expectations nationally, the Florida GOP further solidified its grip over what had long been the country’s most important swing state, and where the two parties’ presidential candidates had been separated by a combined 20,000 votes out of 50 million cast from 1992 through 2016..

“We got our butts kicked,” Alex Sink, the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2010, told VICE News. “I didn’t expect double-digit wins by the Republicans. We’re a red state now.” 

How did Republicans pull this off? And is Florida really a red state now?

The blue areas are getting redder…and so are the red areas

At the center of the Democrats’ collapse in Florida is what happened in Miami. 

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Miami-Dade County with nearly two-thirds of the vote; four years later, President Joe Biden won it by just seven percentage points. On Tuesday, DeSantis defeated former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist there by a double-digit margin. It’s the first time a Republican gubernatorial candidate has won Miami-Dade County in 20 years.

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On his way to winning his second four-year term in the governor’s mansion, DeSantis flipped Palm Beach County—long a Democratic stronghold—and kept Crist’s margin to 15 points in Broward County, the Democrats’ base in South Florida. DeSantis also won Sink’s home of Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa. 

“Even here in Hillsborough County, we lost some unexpected county commission seats. It impacted us all the way down the ballot,” Sink said. “I actually predicted but didn’t say publicly a couple of years ago that we would become a red state. And that's where we are.”

Complicating matters for Democrats is that turnout lagged even in the areas they did win. In Democratic-leaning Orange County, which includes Orlando and Demings’ home district, fewer than 47  percent of voters turned out, according to the Florida Secretary of State's office. In 2018, 60 percent of Orange County voters turned out

Eskamani told VICE News that in her entirely Orange County district specifically, however, turnout was 57 percent, 11 points higher than the county as a whole.

“That’s not a coincidence, because we work really hard,” Eskamani said. “We organize our communities and we also show up for people every single day.”

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The Florida GOP is a well-oiled machine. Florida Democrats, not so much.

On Tuesday, Orange County voters approved a rent stabilization ballot measure by a larger margin than they supported the Democrat running for Senate (Demings, who represents Orlando in Congress) and governor (Crist, most recently a three-term Congressman who resigned from the House in August). 

This mirrors 2018, when voters approved state constitutional amendments granting the right to vote to nonviolent former felons and raising the minimum wage, while at the same time electing DeSantis governor and Republican Rick Scott to the Senate. 

Florida Democrats are also at a massive fundraising disadvantage. Democrats running for governor have been outraised and outspent by Republicans in every election since at least 2010, and this year the gap was enormous. 

DeSantis raised $200 million, according to Politico. He did so on the strength of his growing national profile as an idolatric figure for Republicans—which DeSantis has wholeheartedly embraced—and  spent half that sum on his race and to help fund Republican legislative candidates

“He was able to use his money to help the local candidates, and we don’t have that same infrastructure at all,” Eskamani said. “We’re never gonna have the same financial resources.”

DeSantis’ huge fundraising haul is the latest race where Republicans heavily outspent Democrats—spending that has helped them build a field campaign juggernaut that’s helped them make gradual inroads with various communities and register hundreds of thousands of voters, while Democrats largely spun their wheels. In 2010, Sink lost her race for governor to Republican Rick Scott by just one percentage point. The billionaire outspent her and her allies in that race by $68 million to $17 million. 

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Former President Barack Obama narrowly won the state in 2012, after spending a ton of time and money there, but his organization was built apart from the Democratic National Committee—and like in other states, it was dissolved after his election victories, leaving local Democrats with little to build on.

Scott won his rematch in 2014 by outspending Crist, a former Republican governor turned Democrat, by $96 million to $48 million.

Hillary Clinton invested heavily in Florida in 2016, and performed well in Miami-Dade County after building a huge field operation there. But her team was shocked by how many voters Trump was able to turn out in the state’s conservative Southwest coast, and especially in its rural, deep red Panhandle up north.

In 2018, it was a similar story, in spite of a blue wave nationally. Scott ran for Senate against the aging Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who by all accounts ran a lackluster campaign and lost a winnable race. 

Democrats long expected that Florida Rep. Gwen Graham would prevail in 2018’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and she’d built a serious field operation they thought would help drag Nelson across the finish line. But Graham was upset in the primary by progressive Andrew Gillum, which left Democrats scrambling with weeks to build a field operation to match the one Scott had built over nearly a decade.

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DeSantis outspent Gillum by $58 million to $52 million after winning his own contested primary, partially thanks to an endorsement from then-President Trump. Scott and his allies deluged the state with cash once again, outspending Nelson and his team by $84 million to $33 million. 

Gillum and Nelson each left more than $3 million unspent in their campaign accounts—and each lost by less a point.

All those races were nail-biters, though, with Republicans winning by less than one-point margins. It wasn’t until the 2020 presidential election  that things really fell apart for Democrats. 

Like Clinton, Biden and his team spent heavily in the state, and he traveled there more than any state besides Pennsylvania. But they didn’t invest in the ground game like Trump, mostly because of COVID, and were largely in the dark about what was happening in Miami. Miami-Dade County swung hard against him: A county Hillary Clinton won by 30 points, Biden won by just seven. He lost Florida along with it, with Trump winning by more than three points—what was once considered a landslide in Florida.

That result left Florida Democrats high and dry. Expecting a tough midterm election and facing a juggernaut in DeSantis—whose penchant for waging culture wars and staunch refusal to allow COVID restrictions made him a national star and a fundraising machine—national Democrats did almost nothing to help Crist or support Demings against Rubio. DeSantis dropped more than $100 million on the race; Crist spent $31 million.

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That helped DeSantis and Rubio blow out Crist and Demings by 19- and 16-point margins, respectively—taking out a bunch of down-ticket Democrats as well.

Adding further to the Democrats’ woes was the loss of four House seats, largely due to gerrymandering. They can also have DeSantis to thank for that: after the Florida legislature submitted districts that weren’t sufficiently lopsided to his liking, DeSantis was given the keys to draw the districts himself

By the end of the process, Florida had wiped out two districts in North and Central Florida represented by Black members of Congress, dividing large Black communities between new Republican-held districts. It’s possible that this could make the difference in Congress, given that whichever party controls the House is guaranteed to have a thin majority

Eskamani said that Democrats should focus on building power in other ways. 

“You need to build a multi-class, multi-racial, and multi-generational coalition to win, so that means building bridges with folks at different political persuasions,” Eskamani, who flipped a Republican seat in 2018 and held it at the same margin this year, told VICE News. “I would not be a state representative if I didn't earn the support of Republicans. Bottom line.”

The demographics of the state have changed—and Republicans have capitalized

Florida Cuban and Puerto Rican voters have shifted hard against Democrats: on Tuesday, a CNN exit poll showed that DeSantis won Latino voters by 13 points, a 20-point swing from Donald Trump’s performance in 2020.

Florida Republicans have historically enjoyed the support of reactionary Cuban emigres who came to South Florida after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. But Democrats had gradually been making inroads with those voters, winning them in 2012. That changed fast when President Obama moved to normalize relations with Cuba during his second term, infuriating many in the community. Since then, they’ve been moving back right.

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That move has been aided significantly by right-wing efforts to brand Democrats as socialists, which has been pushed on Spanish-language radio and social media—a particularly devastating attack in Venezuelan as well as Cuban-American communities. 

DeSantis also won traditionally Democratic-leaning voters of Puerto Rican descent by double digits, the CNN exit poll showed.

Democrats have also been banking that the state’s fast-growing Puerto Rican population would be a bulwark for them, especially after Trump mishandled a catastrophic hurricane that hit the island in 2018. But in Osceola County, which has the largest percentage of Puerto Rican residents on the U.S. mainland, DeSantis won by seven points. 

The GOP has also made massive gains in registration. In 2018, Democrats had an advantage in registered voters of more than 130,000; by October of this year, there were more than 300,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. 

That’s partly because of shifting demographics, and partly because Republicans have outspent and out-organized Democrats in the state for more than a decade.

The state has long been a destination for retirees. But in recent decades, there’s been a shift from New York and New Jersey retirees, who tended to be a political mixed bag, to much more conservative voters moving from the rural Midwest to places like The Villages, the country’s largest retirement community.

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“We’re having 1,000 people a week moving into Florida, and when I saw who they were, what kind of people they were and where they were moving to—The Villages, Southwest Florida—they were very much more an upper-income, Republican-leaning population, they were older,” Sink told VICE News.

And the DeSantis era has supercharged this trend, as he’s openly pushed for Republicans to move into the conservative utopia he’s trying to build.

Democratic priorities in Florida tend to be popular, but Eskamani said that Democrats don’t champion issues relevant to working families enough. On Tuesday, Orange County voters approved a rent stabilization ballot measure by a larger margin than they supported the Democrat running for Senate (Demings, who represents Orlando in Congress) and governor (Crist, most recently a three-term Congressman who resigned from the House in August).

This mirrors 2018, when voters approved state constitutional amendments granting the right to vote to nonviolent former felons and raising the minimum wage, while at the same time electing DeSantis governor and Republican Rick Scott to the Senate.  

“It’s so frustrating because the Democratic Party continuously listens to corporate consultants that did not have the best interests of everyday people in mind at all,” Eskamani said, pointing to the win for rent stabilization and simultaneous loss on a penny tax for transportation funding.

“You’re not reflecting what people need you to care about. You’re trying to increase taxes on folks when our voters are telling us, ‘I’m struggling with costs.’”

But Florida Democrats insist that the state isn’t lost forever. Eskamani pointed to close margins in some legislative races as a sign of potential for Democrats to emerge from the wilderness. For example: Six-term Rep. Carlos G. Smith, the first openly gay Latino member of the legislature and a vocal opponent of DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, lost his Orlando-area seat by only 2,000 votes

“Things can change, especially with a presidential election in two years, but I also really encourage anyone who cares about the future of Florida that we cannot operate on a two-year cycle,” Eskamani told VICE News. “We have to operate thinking eight to ten years down the road.” 

Sink also said Florida Republicans will be emboldened by their victory to drag the state further right on issues like abortion. The right to abortion is technically protected in the state Constitution, but an emboldened GOP legislature is likely to impose new abortion restrictions.

“Keep an eye on the abortion legislation they will pass,” Sink told VICE News. “Since they have total control I believe they will overreach and there will be an eventual backlash.” 

“The tide turns and we have to watch the demographics here,” Sink added. “And I think the people I’m talking to, who are Democrats and actively involved, are not willing to give up.”

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