Sitting in a conference room inside the Florida Democratic Party’s brand-new Tallahassee office, Juan Peñalosa beamed with optimism as he talked about the upcoming 2020 elections.
Peñalosa, who serves as executive director of the state party, is helping craft what he hopes will be a winning playbook for Democrats competing in the nation’s largest battleground state.
After years of being trounced by Republicans in a state where the GOP controls virtually all the levers of power, the Florida Democratic Party faces its biggest foe yet: President Donald Trump.
Peñalosa said party leaders have learned their lessons as a result of past failures, but the success of the efforts will not be clear until Election Day in November.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Juan Peñalosa:
Q: So, we are heading into a very important election year. Florida Democrats have had pretty deflating losses in recent election cycles, but we’ve been hearing from party leaders since last year that there have been changes in strategy. What specifically are you doing differently this time around?
Peñalosa: Yes, I think we have had heartbreaking losses. We’ve also learned our lessons from ’18, ’16 and ’14, and we’re going back to our winning playbook, which is investing early, building the infrastructure you need to win and create the electorate that you want, not the one that the polling says you have. That is what we did with the Obama coalition and that’s what we’re doing now even without a candidate at the top of the ticket. The one thing I’ve always said when I’m out on the stump and talking to people and trying to get them to believe in the Florida Democratic Party again is that we have had the resources we needed to win in the past. But you can’t buy time. And Florida is a large, gritty, complex state and you can’t build a campaign operation that you need to win in four to five months. And that is what we did in 2018, 2016 and 2014. So, in 2015, we had 3,000 volunteer shifts from the Florida Democratic Party the entire year. In 2019, we’ve already completed 37,000. Building that infrastructure, giving volunteers a place to go and build neighborhood teams are key to our effort.
Q: A total of 18 candidates have qualified for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary ballot. Can you take us behind the scenes and tell us a little bit about the presidential candidates and who you see as having the biggest operations in Florida at the moment?
Peñalosa: There are a number of candidates who have already started to build an infrastructure in the state. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg all have a pretty solid infrastructure here. (Michael) Bloomberg is staffing up right now in Florida as well. I think they are bringing people in that support their candidate and what those Democrats stand for. We are bringing in Democrats that are going to support whoever the candidate is. I think it is going to dovetail nicely once we do have a nominee.
Q: As you know, Florida is a very expensive state to campaign in because of its geographic size and numerous media markets. But the political atmosphere is changing in some respects due to the growth of political committees held by individual candidates and their supporters. What impact has that had on political parties --- specifically yours?
Peñalosa: I think that the Florida Democratic Party has a lane. In terms of appealing to donors, I think you have to make your case, whether you’re a candidate or a party or a political committee. You have to indicate why resources should come to you and what you are going to do with those resources. I think in the past, not just the Florida Democratic Party but the Democratic Party as a whole has said, ‘Give us money, we’re going to do good things with it,’ but not made a case to donors and not given them the results. What we’ve done with the (party) is we are (selling) something that only we can do. Partisan voter registration is a really good example. We are the only statewide organization that can do partisan voter registration. Nonprofits are out there registering voters, but they can’t talk about what it means to be a Democrat, and when you have the types of communities that are registering to vote in Florida, they need an education on what it means to be a Democrat. By keeping that lane open for use, it makes sense to donors. It makes sense to candidates. It makes sense to institutions for us to say, this is what the Florida Democratic Party can do that nobody else can do. So, let’s fund that. So rather than compete for resources, I think we’ve all sat down and said, our end goal is defeating Trump and turning Florida blue. What is it that only I can do to make that happen? And really lean into that specific activity.
Q: Speaking of President Donald Trump. The president remains popular in Florida, particularly among Republican voters and many independents. What can we expect on the campaign trail? Will Democrats’ campaigns focus on impeachment or policy issues?
Peñalosa: I don’t think he is a popular president in this state. I think with Republicans he is very popular, but I think with the rest of the electorate he is underwater. The president has spent the better part of three years alienating pretty much every single voting bloc he needs to win in this state. He has alienated people of color. Alienated immigrant communities. Alienated rural voters and farmers and working families who need support from the government. When he is on the ballot, Puerto Ricans are going to remember him throwing paper towels at them. Immigrant communities are going to remember his child separation policies. Farmers are going to remember the tariffs, which have led to the demise of many of their businesses. I think the impeachment drama is going to unfold and will show that Donald Trump is using his office to further the interests of the First Family and himself. And as much as we can point that out in policy, I think it’s to our advantage as Democrats. But (not) getting caught up in the impeachment process, which is going on in Washington. We need to keep our focus on Florida.
Q: Let’s turn to a more local topic. Republicans have a 23-17 advantage in the Florida Senate. What’s the party doing in its attempt to flip the chamber in 2020, and which races are getting the most resources?
Peñalosa: We are focused on swing districts. It goes back to that first question you asked about creating the electorate that we need to win and doing that work now. In terms of races, (Senate District) 39 is going to be huge for us. We need to protect (Senate District) 37. You also have the Senate District 9, which is an open seat that we are looking at. (U.S. Rep.) Ted Yoho’s retirement makes (Senate District 8) very interesting. Sen. Keith Perry may just decide he wants to run for Congress there, and if that’s the case, then that is an open seat as well. We also have (Senate District) 25. So, in the Senate, there are a number of races that we are looking at that are two, three points away if we can change that electorate from being a toss-up to leaning Democrat.