Florida Democratic Candidates Organize to Protest Florida Democratic Party

Candidates say the party is more concerned with making money from candidates than competing in red districts.

Illustration: The Intercept

Democratic candidates competing in state legislative and congressional races across Florida are revolting against the Florida Democratic Party, saying that the party has abandoned them — and that the party’s refusal to support their efforts to flip the legislature could hurt Joe Biden in November. Several candidates are being denied access to a powerful voter data tool, significantly impairing their ability to organize and campaign, and are now asking the state Democratic Party to either help turn Florida blue or get out of their way.

More than 50 candidates signed onto a letter on Thursday demanding that the Florida Democratic Party share access to its voter files and resources. For access to VAN, the widely used Democratic voter file technology firm, the party is charging about $3,500 for a congressional campaign, $1,500 for state Senate, and $750 for House — fees that many candidates can’t afford before their campaigns get off the ground. State Democratic parties in New Jersey, Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska, The Progressive noted in a 2018 article, do not charge candidates to access their voter data. The Democratic Party charges congressional candidates about $3,000 in Texas and about $5,000 in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Rosy Gonzalez Speers, a senior adviser for down-ballot elections for the state Democratic Party, said that the Florida Democratic Party charges one of the lowest fees for VAN access in the country, adding that there is a “tremendous amount of overhead cost.” She said they’re also offering a “program” where candidates make 1,000 calls into their own district to receive a $350 rebate on their $750 purchase.

“Right now we have over 150 candidates who have already purchased VAN and are actively using it,” Speers said. “And what we provide is the maintenance of the system, the voter file is updated every single month and our staff cost is to staff VAN and give candidates free access to a full-time support person whenever they submit a data ticket and need help or training.”

Adam Christensen, one of three Democratic candidates running for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Rep. Ted Yoho, said the Florida Democratic Party is missing a huge opportunity, putting a “start-up cost” on something that should be an investment.

“If these candidates had the voter files, the data, the information on where to canvass, who to canvass, not only would it increase the amount of Democrats in Florida, it would in turn increase donations, it would increase the amount of races that are won in Florida,” he said. “But right now the Democratic Party is more concerned with making money off candidates, who they essentially see as suckers, and they will not call them back, they will not give them any actual backing.”

In the letter, the candidates wrote that access to the voter files is “a necessary first step” toward winning the 84 GOP-held state legislative seats Democrats are running for, dozens of congressional races, and the presidential election.

This election cycle marks the first time that some Democratic candidates are challenging previously uncontested, Republican-held legislative seats. For decades, the Florida Democratic Party has refused to run Democrats for state House and Senate in deep red districts, offering little resistance to the Republican takeover. That changed this year, when the voting rights group 90 for 90, with help from local progressive groups, recruited challengers and helped raise money to cover the massive ballot access fees to run for these long-ignored seats.

Florida also has the second highest fees in the country to get on the ballot, requiring congressional candidates to obtain 5,000 signatures or fork over $10,500. And because the coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult to obtain the number of signatures necessary for the petition, this means candidates are expected to pay the large fees on top of the fees to access VAN. For working-class candidates or young people trying to run for office, Christensen said, “it’s game over.”

The idea is that running Democrats everywhere, especially in GOP strongholds, helps drive turnout, cuts the margin of defeat to make districts increasingly competitive over time, and forces Republicans to spend money. Efforts by local- and state-level Democrats to help drive turnout by better targeting get-out-the-vote efforts could also help Biden in the battleground state, which Donald Trump carried in 2016. But candidates say that the Florida Democratic Party has no interest in competing and at times actively discourages opposition, claiming that it would anger Republicans, or refuses to help any of the Democratic contenders.

“They have gone out and hired a bunch of field organizers and they give them access to VAN, they give [Democratic Executive Committees] access to VAN, they give everyone access to VAN except for the candidates,” Christensen said. “And at the end of the day the candidates are the ones who not only use the data, but update the data. They fix most of the data rolls to begin with because they’re the ones that actually make contact with voters and find people who are persuadable enough.”

Speers noted that the Florida Democratic Party has been investing in voter registration and vote by mail expansion for over a year. “Our voter registration numbers are the highest that they’ve been,” she said. “There are definitely a lot of efforts that are going into Florida organizing that will benefit all candidates that are on the ticket.”

Tensions between Democratic candidates and the state party have been playing out on social media in a Facebook group of more than 84 candidates. The chair of the Florida Democratic Party, Terrie Rizzo, is an administrator on the group.

“Am I the only one really annoyed that the FLORIDA democratic party is hiring all these field organizers just so their only focus is electing Biden?” Tammy Garcia, a candidate in House District 37, wrote in a post this week. “Shouldn’t [the Florida Democratic Party] be focusing on, you know, FLORIDA candidates? We seriously need new leadership at the top.”

Ryan Morales, who’s running for state House in District 32, added to Garcia’s post: “You do realize you are on your own. Hence why we created this group to help each other out. It’s a business and we have to fight to be included in the club.” (Speers said that she spent an hour on the phone today with Morales’s campaign manager.)

The Florida Democratic Party also recently came under fire for accepting at least $780,000 in loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, returning the money after Democratic lawmakers slammed the move as unethical and potentially illegal. Florida Rep. Donna Shalala reportedly told Rizzo in a tense conversation this week that the party should return the money and that she wouldn’t be participating in an upcoming news conference.

Join The Conversation