Two of Florida’s most prominent Democrats are set to face off for one of the least sought-after jobs in Sunshine State politics: Florida Democratic Party chair.
Party leaders are set to meet in Orlando on Saturday to elect their next chair, a critical first step toward rehabilitating the long-struggling organization. While four candidates are vying for the job, the race is largely seen as a head-to-head battle between former state Sen. Annette Taddeo and former state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who jumped into the contest less than two weeks ago.
The winner will face a daunting challenge: rebuilding a party teetering on the edge of political irrelevance.
“For whoever becomes the party chair, it’s not going to be about celebrity. It’s going to be a thankless job,” said Dwight Bullward, a former Florida state senator and a senior political adviser to the progressive group Florida Rising.
“It’s going to be probably one of the most difficult jobs they take on,” he added. “But baked into that is an opportunity. An opportunity to build without the heavy hand of national influence that Florida has operated under for a long time.”
Florida Democrats have faced a series of setbacks in recent years, ranging from financial strains to internal disagreements over strategy and messaging to lagging voter registration efforts.
After leading Republicans in registered voters for years, Democrats were overtaken in 2021 and have only seen their deficit grow since then. There are now over 400,000 more registered Republican voters than Democratic voters. By comparison, in 2008, when former President Barack Obama first won the state, there were nearly 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
The extent of those difficulties was put into stark relief in November, when the party and its candidates suffered across-the-board losses in the 2022 midterm elections.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) won reelection by a 19-point margin — the largest in a Florida gubernatorial race in four decades — while Republicans gained a supermajority in the state legislature. For the first time since Reconstruction, there’s not a single Democrat in statewide office.
The losses kicked off months of finger-pointing and internal strife, culminating last month with the abrupt resignation of former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz as the chair of the Florida Democratic Party.
Among those vying to succeed Diaz are Fried, Taddeo, progressive activist Carolina Ampudia and Broward County Democratic Party Chair Rick Hoye.
And while they’ve sought to make their individual cases for winning the job, there’s little disagreement among the candidates that the party has long been rife with problems and is in desperate need of an overhaul.
“This doesn’t happen overnight. This was 30 years in the making,” Fried, who unsuccessfully challenged former Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) for the party’s gubernatorial nomination last year, said during a debate last week. “We have to start listening once again to the people on the ground.”
Taddeo, a former Miami-Dade Democratic Party chair who fell short in her bid to oust Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) in November, made the case that Democrats needed year-round investments to bulk up their organizing and voter registration efforts — and put aside the infighting that has ravaged the party for years.
“I’m ready to do this job,” Taddeo said. “I know how to do it. I know how to do the fundraising — and it does take money to do the things we want to do.”
Heading into the Saturday chair vote, either Fried and Taddeo appear to be the likely pick. Both are well-known statewide and have racked up a long list of endorsements from the very party members who will elect their next leader on Saturday.
Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida who is backing Taddeo, said that not only does she have prior experience running a party, but she also has the most practical understanding of what rebuilding the state Democratic organization actually entails.
“I remember Annette Taddeo’s tenure as the Miami-Dade County party chair. She built good infrastructure; we had an office, we had actual staff, we had good funding to execute programs, we were registering voters and winning races,” Kennedy said. “I think she comes tried and proven.”
Alex Berrios, the co-founder of the voter-engagement group Mi Vecino who dropped out of the Florida Democratic Party chair contest earlier this month and endorsed Fried, said that the former agriculture commissioner’s status as the only Democrat to win statewide in recent years made her uniquely qualified to head-up the party.
“She’s not just a good person, she’s a good candidate,” he said. “She’s young, she’s strong, she’s not just going to bend to pressure. This is somebody that has more spine than most people in politics.”
But Berrios also offered a sober assessment of Democrats’ struggles in Florida. It will likely take months for the new chair to get up to speed in the job, he said. He also described the party as being stuck in a “Groundhog Day moment,” where Democrats repeatedly talk about fixing the same set of problems –—lackluster voter registration efforts, a lagging organizing program — without making actual progress.
The bigger issue, he said, is that Florida Democrats have failed to rally the support of even their most-loyal voters.
“It’s too easy to just make a big statement that’s true, like we need year-round organizing,” Berrios said. “We’ve said that time and time again, and we still don’t have it.”
“By and large, people are voting against Democrats. Democrats are voting against Democrats,” he continued. “The Democratic Party has a core problem with branding and expectations. When you are losing your own base, you need to address those issues first.”