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No Candidates In Sight, But Florida Democrats Energized

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo speaks to the state convention in Lake Buena Vista Saturday.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo speaks to the state convention in Lake Buena Vista Saturday. COURTESY FL DEMOCRATIC PARTY / TWITTER

Even with no presidential candidate in sight at their state convention on Saturday, Florida Democratic leaders said grassroots party members are energized to defeat President Donald Trump next year.

Party leaders admitted that in past years they have started late in raising money and organizing. But they promised they aren't repeating that pattern this election cycle.

"The fact that the candidates aren't here is because we're 25th on the primary calendar," said Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democrats. "There's tremendous excitement about what's going on."

With the chief focus on voter registration, the party is devoting $3.2 million to register 200,000 Democrats by the 2020 primary, party leaders told reporters Saturday.

"We believe in expanding the electorate, creating the electorate that we want, instead of accepting the electorate the pundits and consultants have said we have," said Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "So we're focusing on voter registration."

Part of that effort includes expanding a cadre of Spanish-speaking surrogates who can deliver the party's message across Spanish-language media, including radio, television and the internet. Thus far, the party has amassed about 300 such surrogates, Penalosa said. In addition, the state party has committed $100,000 in Spanish media advertising.

A lesson from previous elections was to hire Latinos from within Florida, who know the issues of their communities, instead of importing them from out of state, he said.

"I think that it's no secret that Latinos in the United States of America are going to be the largest ethnic voting bloc in 2020," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat from South Florida. "And the road to winning the Democratic nomination and the road to flipping the White House and winning the White House in 2020 will be through the Latino vote."

Florida Democrats also have a $1 million voter protection program that includes a hotline to receive complaints about problems Floridians face in registering or voting. A chief complaint centers on the concerns of ex-prisoners who are trying to get their voting rights restored after Florida voters approved an amendment allowing felons to regain the vote after completing their sentences. The Florida Legislature passed legislation requiring felons to have paid off all fees and fines before they can register. Civil rights groups are challenging the measure.

The Florida Democratic Party is also setting up legal teams in every county should problems arise with registering or voting.

The party has 31 field organizers around the state of more than 20 million residents. Florida has 4.9 million registered Democrats, 4.7 million registered Republicans and another 3.6 million registered voters have no party affiliation.

"We're focusing on the swing districts ... expanding the electorate in those districts," Penalosa said. "We think if we focus on the swing districts, not only do we win the presidency but we pick up quite a few seats as well."

Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried, the only Democrat currently holding a statewide office, said Florida Democrats are entering the 2020 race more focused than at any other time before.

"The entire world is counting on us here in Florida," Fried said.


AP writer Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.

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