As part of his effort to help down-ballot Democrats grow their numbers in the Capitol, one-time gubernatorial candidate and former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum has decided on 21 candidates to endorse and support financially in 2020.
Gillum’s Forward Florida political committee expects to spend six figures and more on state legislative races over the course of the campaign.
“These endorsements represent our commitment to building a lasting progressive movement in Florida — and turning that movement into real victories up and down the ballot,” Gillum said in a statement Wednesday. “So much of what affects everyday Floridians’ lives happens at the state level, so it is vital that we are working to flip Florida Blue on every level of the ticket.”
As part of the effort, Forward Florida is donating $150,000 to the House Victory Caucus, an arm of the Florida Democratic Party. In the House, Republicans have a 73-47 advantage. Democrats would have to flip at least 14 seats in 2020 and also keep five “swing seats” that they narrowly won two years ago.
The push will also spend “four figures” on the Senate Victory Caucus, a spokesman said, in addition to $30,000 in December and January on targeted digital ads and $50,000 on an on-the-ground voter registration effort in highly watched districts. Much of the focus and funds will be in districts where Gillum won, but are represented by Republicans in Tallahassee.
Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat and House Democratic leader designate, said the push represents a real effort to catch up with what the Republican Party of Florida has been doing well for 20 years. The state Democratic Party traditionally engaged on traditional donor bases like unions, Jenne said, but hasn’t seen much of an increase in the amount of money raised.
“It’s newsworthy because Democrats haven’t really engaged in this type of fundraising before, but at the same time we’re two decades late,” he said. “This is more of a holistic approach.”
Jenne said the investment goes beyond 2020 state House races but will also have an effect on what the new district maps look like in 2022.
After the 2020 Census, the Florida Legislature will be tasked with redrawing the voting districts. Redistricting happens every 10 years.
“[Democrats] were not the shiniest marble in the bag,” Jenne said. “But we have a chance to put up some real numbers on the board this year and push out some winning candidates … [the Florida House] map shifts a lot quicker than other maps.”
The 21 endorsees include:
▪ Miami Lakes Rep. Cindy Polo (House District 103)
▪ Franccesca Cesti-Browne, of Miami (running for House District 115)
▪ South Miami Rep. Javier Fernandez (running for Senate District 39)
▪ West Park Rep. Shevrin Jones (running for Senate District 35)
▪ Miami Rep. Dotie Joseph (House District 108)
▪ Lauderhill Sen. Perry Thurston (Senate District 33)
▪ Miami Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (Senate District 37)
Polo, who is running to keep her seat representing largely Republican House District 103 and Fernández, who is running for Republican Sen. Anitere Flores’ Senate seat, say the push is meaningful. About $53,000 in contributions have already been distributed among the list of 21, in addition to added voter engagement resources in their districts.
Polo, a political novice who defeated former Miami Lakes Vice Mayor Frank Mingo in 2018, said Gillum’s investment is indicative of a chance for Democrats to make gains in the Florida House, even in an election year where most voters are focused on the White House.
“We must protect the seats we flipped in 2018 but also support those who are now competing in winnable seats in Miami-Dade, especially those that are writing a new West Side Story,” she said.
Fernández said the investment not only allows candidates to run in competitive races but gives Democrats an early start on building a voter base.
“It will translate into better results later in the cycle,” he said. “It can also help build name recognition and the backbone of a campaign.”
Forward Florida faced some criticism earlier this year after Gillum gave $500,000 to the committee’s sister voter registration group, Forward Florida Action. The use of those dollars is not transparent, and there was a discrepancy as to how many voters were actually registered by the effort.
The effort, however, is not the first of its kind to put this type of money toward electing Democrats in red or purple states.
Since 2017, Forward Majority has spent millions in Democratic legislative races around the country. In 2019, it spent about $500,000 to help Democrats regain control of the Virginia Legislature for the first time since 1999.
In Texas, former U.S. Senate and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke is promoting “Flip the Texas House,” a major Democrat-led voter registration effort in the state.