TALLAHASSEE — Andrew Gillum and a super PAC that helped flip the Virginia General Assembly to Democrats are teaming up to turn back more than two decades of Republican rule in the Florida House.
Gillum, the 2018 Democratic candidate for governor, and Forward Majority will target as many as 25 seats in Florida that they say could turn blue with a little help — and money — from outside groups.
If the partnership succeeds, it will mark another victory for Forward Majority, which has spent millions of dollars on legislative races around the country since 2017. This year, it spent about $500,000 to help Democrats regain control of the Virginia Legislature for the first time since 1999. Two years earlier, the group spent $1 million on Virginia races.
Forward Majority is trying to turn back a Republican grip on statehouses that has held tight for two decades and grew even stronger while President Barack Obama was in office. The group is making a big push ahead of 2020, when state lawmakers will draw new legislative and congressional maps before the 2022 election.
Florida is a highly competitive presidential swing state, but its political machinery is controlled almost entirely by Republicans, who have held a trifecta on the statehouse and governor’s mansion since 1999.
In the House, the GOP holds a commanding 73-47 advantage. To take the majority, Democrats would need to turn at least 14 seats in 2020 while defending five that they narrowly won two years ago or are considered swing seats.
As part of the effort, Gillum this week said his political committee, Forward Florida, would donate $150,000 to the House Victory Caucus, an arm of the Florida Democratic Party.
Forward Florida will conduct targeted voter registration, including going door-to-door to register voters in House districts they want to flip. Gillum will help raise money nationally for Forward Majority and plans to hold a fundraiser with state House Democrats in January in Palm Beach County.
In recent years, Florida Democrats and their allies have focused squarely on control of the 40-member state Senate, especially after a four-year legal battle over redistricting that altered the makeup of several districts. Democrats would need to claim four new seats next year to end Republican control of the Senate.
Gillum and Forward Majority say that, despite the numbers, the path to Democratic power is actually easier in the House than the Senate.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Gillum told POLITICO on Tuesday. “We’ve got to be a lot more aggressive in expanding the map.”
Eleven of the 14 Republican seats Democrats need in order to take the House went for Gillum or Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018. Gillum and Nelson narrowly lost in several others, including a handful where they were bested by 6 percentage points or less. The seats include several in South Florida and along the Interstate 4 corridor.
“I actually see the map in the House to be much more achievable,” Gillum said. “I do believe that we are in reach of those 14 seats. But we’ve got to compete, and we’ve got to bring a level of unprecedented resources to that fight.”
Forward Majority spent $2 million in 2018 on Florida legislative races, said Vicky Hausman, the group’s co-founder and co-CEO. Democrats won seven seats, but two incumbents lost, resulting in a net gain of five seats.
“Florida has been very much on our list and in our sights since we started,” Hausman said.
The group uses opposition research and digital advertising to “fill gaps in campaign infrastructure” and deploy ads that focus on health care, climate change and education.
Democratic candidates frequently are vastly outspent, and the group’s money goes far in such underfunded races, Hausman said. Forward Majority has spent an average of $75,000 on state House races nationwide.
Republicans win those matchups not because they’re spending “an insane amount of money,” she said. “It’s because Democrats are spending almost nothing.”
Flipping the Florida House would deliver a thunderbolt to the state’s political landscape given the chamber’s role in pushing conservative legislation. House Republicans, for example, shot down Senate efforts to expand Medicaid in the state, a key component of Obama’s health care overhaul.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, the Palm Harbor Republican in line to be House speaker after the 2020 elections, scoffed at the idea that Democrats can retake the House after 23 years.
“Andrew Gillum is not known for his campaign strategy,” said Sprowls, who is in charge of maintaining the GOP’s House majority next year.
“Nobody says Florida is not a purple state. But efforts like the one from Andrew Gillum and a national group to federalize Florida elections fails every cycle,” Sprowls said. “Floridians are happy with a Republican-led Legislature and the government they have. They continue to bring back Republican majorities.”
Gillum pulled off an upset in the 2018 Democratic primary but ultimately lost to Ron DeSantis — who was endorsed by President Donald Trump — by roughly 30,000 votes.
Gillum has been criticized for failing to spend nearly $3 million his political committee had on hand on the eve of the election. Despite his loss, he continues to receive national attention and exposure. He is a commentator for CNN and has taken a position with People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group.
He’s also kept his political operations intact and has helped finance voter registration drives through his new nonprofit group, Forward Florida Action.
“In order for Florida to be in a position to elect a Democratic president, for us to elect a Democratic Cabinet and governor, for us to win the majority in the Legislature, we have got to return to the basics of organizing and investing,” Gillum said.