People march in Naples, Fla., on Jan. 21, 2017 following the inauguration of President Donald Trump to protest his attitudes toward women. (Photo: author)
Dec. 10, 2019 by David Silverberg
Doris Cortese has a nightmare.
The 80-year-old “godmother” of Lee County Republican politics told NBC-2’s Dave Elias in a Nov. 12 interview that her worst fear is that someday Lee County could turn blue.
“I was worried about it. I hope and pray it never happens,” Cortese said.
Making Cortese’s nightmare come true is exactly what every local Democrat dreams of accomplishing—and not just Lee County but all of Southwest Florida.
But Democrats are under no illusions. No Democrat goes into an election in Southwest Florida thinking that the race will be easy—and no one is ever disappointed.
The race is hard, the path is steep, the odds are long and the obstacles daunting. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done or that victory is unattainable.
So how can a Democrat win in Southwest Florida? This analysis focuses on the 19th Congressional District, the coastal strip from Cape Coral to Marco Island and the congressional race, but many of the structural issues apply as well to Southwest Florida state legislative districts and districts.
First, let’s survey the obstacles.
The structural impediments
The first thing any candidate looks at are the relative registration rolls and for many the story is told right there: In Lee County, as of Dec. 9, there were 196,365 Republicans or 42 percent; 124,693 Democrats or 27 percent; and 141,563 “others” or 31 percent. In Collier County it was 105,320 Republicans or 52 percent; 48,130 Democrats or 23 percent; and 50,300 “others” or 25 percent.
The party disparity is reinforced through gerrymandering, which keeps potentially Democratic communities like Lehigh Acres and Golden Gate outside the 19th District and absorbed into the largely Republican 17th and 25th districts.
As a result of the Republican majority, all elected public officials are Republican. What is more, the local media tend to be dismissive of Democratic candidates, ignoring their activities, their statements, their stands on the issues and their campaigns. And Republican dominance gives them a tremendous fundraising advantage.
Republican dominance is ironic, given Florida’s past as a solidly southern Democratic state. However, like the rest of the south, Florida began becoming more Republican beginning in the 1950s. President Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” accelerated the trend in 1968 and 1972. Republicans took over the state house in 1996.
Even so, Florida has been a finely divided toss-up state in election after election.
That see-saw battle, however, has not applied along the Paradise Coast. Naples is the southernmost point of Interstate Highway 75, which comes straight down from the Canadian border, through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. As a result, since the highway’s completion in the 1970s, the area has seen a steady influx of Republicans from the colder regions of the upper Midwest, both as snowbirds and permanent residents. The influx continues today.
If one presumes that past is future, there is no reason not to suppose that this situation will continue. People from Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, mostly Republicans, will continue migrating hither. Republican dominance could be indefinite.
But past trends in this case do not guarantee future returns.
What a Democrat must do to win
How many votes must a Democratic candidate get to win a congressional seat in the 19th Congressional District?
We can begin by looking at the last two general elections, one a midterm, the other a presidential election. (Figures used here come from Ballotpedia.)
In 2018, a total of 339,607 votes were cast for this office. Francis Rooney won 211,465 or 62.3 percent, David Holden won 128,106 or 37.7 percent and “other” votes came to only 36 votes.
But how much higher is the turnout in a presidential election year? In 2016, voter turnout was 363,166. This was Francis Rooney’s first election and he won 239,225 votes or 65.9 percent against Robert Neeld, who without doing any campaigning, won 123,812 or 34.1 percent of the vote. In this election “other” votes came to 129 votes.
Two years later, with vigorous campaigning, fundraising and television advertising, Holden was able to raise the Democratic percentage from the previous election from 34.1 percent to 37.7 percent.
Despite that fluctuation, it’s fairly safe to say that the percentages of Republican to Democratic vote totals in SWFL usually break down to around 65 percent to 35 percent. This has also held true in state races, so it’s a credible assumption.
Turnout in 2020 is likely to be higher than ever before in Southwest Florida. This author is going to project a total vote of 400,000. To win, a candidate would have to get at least 200,001 votes, although 51 percent is a more realistic goal, which in this scenario comes to 204,000 votes.
If the vote total is split 65 to 35 percent, that yields 260,000 Republican to 140,000 Democratic votes. Any Democratic candidate needs to add 64,000 new votes to the Democratic total to reach 51 percent. To be safe, though, it’s better to shoot for 53 percent, or 212,000 votes. That means the Democrat must win 72,000 new votes.
(Editor’s note: Readers are welcome to challenge these numbers and assumptions and provide their own conclusions in comments on the article. However, the one proviso is that to be credible you must show your work: your data, your sources and your calculations.)
Where are so many new votes to be found? Obviously, they must come from the existing base of registered voters.
In this regard new circumstances have upended the old status quo and opened new populations to Democratic candidates. These circumstances are:
The Trump factor
A crowd at the Collier County fairgrounds reacts to candidate Donald Trump’s denunciation of the media on Oct. 23, 2016. (Photo: the author)
For local Republicans, Donald Trump is both their greatest asset and their greatest liability.
He’s an asset in that he can fire up his local base. He’s already proved that with local rallies in 2016, 2018 and with two rallies in 2019, one in Orlando and the other in Sunrise. These events, which are combinations of circus, carnival, worship service and presidential therapy session, indisputably build adoration for him among the faithful. He can be expected to hold at least one in Southwest Florida in the run-up to the election, particularly since Florida is a crucial state for him and he’s now officially a resident. (A first-hand account of a Trump rally by this author can be seen here.)
Trump’s also a liability in that his behavior, his actions, his insults and his increasing irrationality offend and repulse thinking people and many traditional Republicans.
Such Republicans have been expressing themselves openly since his election in 2016. In October 2018, William MacArthur of Naples wrote in a letter published in the Naples Daily News that “Even though I’ve been a Republican for most of my life, as was my father before me, I cannot justify to my grandchildren my voting for Rep. Francis Rooney, senatorial candidate Rick Scott or gubernatorial candidate Ron Desantis.” More recently, in a Nov. 27, 2019 letter in the Naples Daily News, Bruce Beardsley of Naples stated, “It is with increased shame that I admit to still being registered as a member of the Republican Party. The Republican Party exists in name only. It has become the Party of Trump.”
Trumpers dismiss such people as RINOs—Republicans in name only—but the fact is that the more bizarre and offensive the president’s behavior and pronouncements, the more disastrous his decisions, and with impeachment bringing out evidence of his corruption, the larger their ranks grow. That said, their local numbers may not be sufficient to make the decisive difference at election time. But every Republican that Trump drives away from the Grand Old Party is one more vote that’s potentially Democratic, or at the very least, not Republican.
“Grab ‘em by the …”
Protesters at the second women’s march in Naples, on Jan. 20, 2018. (Photo: author)
From the day in 2016 when he was overheard crudely boasting of his sexual exploits, Trump has offended and demeaned women and they have lashed back. It started the day after Trump’s inauguration when millions of women around the world took to the streets to protest, including robust turnout in Southwest Florida.
Women have been motivated to run for office like never before and it made a difference in turning Congress in 2018. Will the same outrage and energy manifest itself in 2020—especially in Southwest Florida where women constitute a majority in Lee County (51.1 percent) and half of Collier County (50.7 percent)?
It’s incorrect to discuss a “women’s vote” as though women are a uniform, unthinking bloc. Like all voters, female voters are diverse and while they share some commonalities, making generalities—on either side—can be a grave error. In Southwest Florida, women for Trump have turned out in numbers at his rallies, while anti-Trump protestors have made impressive showings at demonstrations and protest marches.
That said, national polls have consistently shown women having an unfavorable view of Trump’s conduct and supporting impeachment and removal by much higher proportions than men. Unfortunately, a lack of demographic sampling in Southwest Florida—at least sampling whose results are publicly available—means that numbers cannot be put to local women’s attitudes in this article.
One issue that has mobilized politically active women is the question of abortion and provision of women’s health services. In Southwest Florida, the Trumper candidates are almost uniformly anti-choice, at least those who have expressed themselves on the issue. State Rep. Dane Eagle, the leading candidate for the Republican congressional nomination, is vehemently anti-choice and has a legislative history of trying to restrict and reduce women’s health options and abortion access.
Trump is also opposed to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and his administration has done everything it can to gut the program, something that also doesn’t sit well with voters who care about health and family issues.
So it may be that female Republican voters offended by Trump and opposed to Trumpist attitudes on healthcare and women’s health issues offer one of the best opportunities for a Democratic candidate to win over new votes.
The number of voters who are not registering with either major party has grown in recent years and now constitute 31 percent of Lee County voters and 25 percent of Collier County, according to Election Office figures.
(Terminology note: Independent voters and non-party affiliated (NPA) voters are not the same. There is an Independence Party of Florida, so technically, “independents” are actually members of a party. In this article non-party affiliated voters will be referred to as NPAs.)
Theoretically, the “other” voters represent a rich source of votes. However, the appearance is deceptive. NPAs may not register with a party out of laziness, indifference or ignorance rather than conviction, meaning that they may not bother to vote at election time.
Susan McManus, a professor at the University of South Florida, addressed the issue in an undated essay appearing in the Sayfie Review: “Who and Where are Florida’s Democrats and Republicans? A Statistical Comparison.”
“Although great emphasis is placed upon the importance of winning independent voters, their vote has been relatively evenly split in the recent past,” she wrote. “In 2008, Obama won the independent vote by only 7 percent and, in 2012, Rick Scott won the independent vote by a similarly small margin (8 percent).”
So while there is no reliable survey data, the likelihood is that NPA votes may split in the same proportion as party votes. In short, NPAs can be won over but it would be a mistake to assume that they can make the decisive difference.
The turning of the suburbs
More encouraging to Democrats is the fact that in recent elections previously Trumpist suburbs have been going Democratic. The 19th Congressional District is considered 66.4 percent suburban.
On Nov. 6, Democrats made great gains in Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania thanks in large part to suburban voters. Indeed, the Pennsylvania results were considered particularly significant.
“The biggest red flag I’d be worrying about is Pennsylvania,” Russ Schriefer, a Republican strategist wrote to The Washington Post after the election. “[It is a] key, targeted state and critical to the Trump coalition. Yet Democrats cleaned up in the suburbs, sweeping in Delaware County — a county with a 30,000 [Republican] plurality and under [Republican] control since the Civil War, an area filled with college-educated, upper/middle income, primarily white voters that were once the bedrock of the Republican Party.”
That seems to describe suburban sentiment across the country.
Southwest Florida is not Delaware County but in 2020 attitudes could change.
New northern influxes
Although Midwesterners provide the majority population in the district, there are increasing numbers of northeasterners coming to Southwest Florida, particularly from Massachusetts and states like New Jersey. Unfortunately, no hard figures are publicly available and not all these northeasterners are Democrats or liberals. Nonetheless, they may provide additional votes for Democratic candidates.
Seniors, youth and families
Southwest Florida has very high proportions of seniors: 28.6 percent of Lee County is 65 years old or older and 32.2 percent of Collier County. (The national average is 16 percent.) In the past, these voters have tended to be conservative and voted Republican.
However, there are increasing numbers of more youthful voters entering the polling places and especially family-age voters. Nationally, younger voters are trending Democratic. This may also occur in Southwest Florida, particularly in Cape Coral, which has a higher proportion of families with school-age children than in the rest of the district.
Trump policies are neither senior-friendly nor family-friendly. Trump’s international trade policies are driving up prices, eroding the purchasing power of fixed-income seniors. While Trump boasts of his job creation, he’s been no friend to retirees. There have been indications that Trump and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are taking aim at Social Security and plan to make significant cuts to the program if Trump is re-elected, which would be devastating to Southwest Florida seniors. If Southwest Florida seniors take this into account they could turn against Republicans.
Trump’s relentless war on the Affordable Care Act, while very satisfying emotionally to his followers, is at odds with the national popularity of affordable healthcare, which is a particular concern of Southwest Florida’s many seniors and parents. It may be an issue that Democrats can leverage to their advantage.
The minority vote
President Barack Obama inspired unprecedented minority turnout for his candidacy. Memories of that support linger in many Democratic minds and minority votes, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics who have been so brutally scapegoated and denigrated by Trump, may make a difference nationally in 2020.
But Southwest Florida in general and the 19th Congressional District in particular, are overwhelmingly white—86.8 percent in Lee County, 89.3 percent in Collier County, which translates into 83 percent in the District.
Even if every single eligible minority voter turned out and voted Democratic—and minority turnout has historically been low—it would not be enough to turn the District Democratic.
In 2018 an inordinate amount of local Democratic time and effort was spent on minority campaigning. There is a Democratic commitment to fairness and civil rights that powers this. But while those minority votes are important and will add to Democratic totals—and remember, not all minority votes will be Democratic—the fact of the matter is that while winning minority votes is important, a Democrat is going to have to tear votes away from the white Republican majority in order to win.
That said, statewide, Democrats are making a new push to register and motivate minority voters. Former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum announced on Dec. 5 that he would be leading a new effort to engage and mobilize young and minority voters across the state and that may have some impact in Southwest Florida.
Hopes and fears
As overwhelming as the task before Southwest Florida Democrats may seem, there are favorable omens around the country.
Again and again since 2016, Democrats have won elections in deep red states like Alabama and Kentucky and turned long-Republican districts in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
In 2020 much will depend on who is nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate. Floridians don’t get to weigh in on the question until very late in the process, the presidential preference primary on March 17, when the nominee will probably be known. But a winning national candidate could translate into local momentum.
To overcome the obstacles and deficits and win the general election, the Democratic candidate in the 19th Congressional District has to be a fighter, someone who is exceptionally aggressive and energetic. This person will have to be able to connect with people on an emotional level and be both passionate as well as pragmatic. She or he must win over reluctant and recalcitrant voters and give traditional Republicans who have doubts about a second Trump presidency the motivation to vote Democratic, many for the first time. This person will have to be backed by exceptionally committed and energetic activists in both Lee and Collier counties. And robust fundraising abilities certainly will not hurt.
Such a scenario may not have been seen before but that’s not to say it can’t happen at all. What’s past is not necessarily prologue.
And so, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, Doris Cortese, the godmother of Lee County Republican politics, may just wake up to discover that her nightmare has come true—Southwest Florida has turned blue.
Liberty lives in light
© 2019 by David Silverberg