The disappearing middle: Moderates are fading from Florida's political scene
Republicans dominate Florida’s government. Blue Dog Democrats are thin on the ground. Republicans fear being called RINOs -- Republican in Name Only. But has the state gone red for good?
Blue Dog Democrats aren’t too plentiful these days. Their centrist Congressional caucus is down to 19 members, with co-chair Stephanie Murphy of Orlando deciding not to run for reelection.
“It’s something that’s happening not just in Florida -- it’s happening across the country," says political scientist Susan MacManus. "Younger people tend to lean more Democrat and are to the left of where Blue Dogs are both on fiscal matters and national security."
MacManus says as the old-school Blue Dogs die off, younger Democrats come in with different values.
“If you think about it, what are Blue Dogs about? First of all, sort of fiscal conservatism. Secondly, a strong national defense... Also, a third would be that they are more likely to want to work across the aisle," MacManus says. "In a polarized society, that’s very difficult sometimes."
Steve Southerland, a Republican from Panama City, represented Florida’s 2nd Congressional District from 2011 to 2015. He won by defeating Allen Boyd, a Blue Dog Democrat whose vote for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) sent him to defeat after representing the district since 1997. Southerland says the unpopular Dodd-Frank bill, which put restrictions on the financial industry, and the Cap and Trade bill, which reduced greenhouse gas emissions, set Boyd up for the third blow in his 2010 defeat.
“Then the final nail, and I would almost say it wasn’t a nail, it was almost a dagger in the Obamacare vote, the ACA vote that Allen cast," Southerland says. "I think Nancy Pelosi thought that they were necessary collateral damage because she made them take those votes, and it was political suicide.”
Boyd still wears “a blue ball cap emblazoned with a dog,” reported Tallahassee Magazine last year. He told reporter Steve Bornhoft there were 15 Blue Dogs when he arrived in Congress and 50 when he left.
“Then in 2010 after the Tea Party movement took hold, most of the ones who went out were moderates.” Bornhoft quoted Boyd. “When you get a national wind, the people who lose are the centrists, not the folks that are crazy left or crazy right. They are in districts that have been gerrymandered so that they can’t lose. But the moderate is always in play.”
“We sort of moved away from partisanship that had nuance into people sort of picking sides based on where they feel like their team is," says Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who managed President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008.
He says over the last generation, political identities shifted that had once been taken for granted. “You know, there are Democrats in the South that are still mad about Lincoln," Schale laughs. "They haven’t voted for a Democrat since maybe Kennedy. I think you’re getting some of that nuanced or local tradition that might have driven partisanship -- just over the last 10 or 15 years -- has been gone away.”
Yet Schale still believes Florida is a purple state.
“There is a formula to winning Florida if you’re a Democrat. There are problems in that formula that we have to address," he says. "So, for example, you know, we’ve got to do well with Hispanics. And my party is having a national problem with Hispanics right now, I think because we let some of the extreme left define what it meant to be a Democrat.”
Southerland is now a partner at Capitol Hill Consulting Group, a lobbying firm. He says both political parties have become more inclined to bash their moderates. But he doesn’t understand the complete lack of a common political denominator.
“There used to be certain things that we rallied around - both parties, Americans used to rally around," Southerland says. "Unfortunately, I think we’re seeing fewer and fewer things that make all people rally around. God, family, country used to bring people together. Now it seems like all those three things can drive wedges in people, and that used to not be the case.”
Southerland lost his seat to moderate Democrat Gwen Graham, who would later decline to run after redistricting placed her in a more conservative-leaning district. Panama City Republican Congressman Neal Dunn now occupies that seat, but Dunn, an avowed conservative, has been redistricted into the same region represented by Congressman Al Lawson, a longtime moderate Democrat. Lawson's minority access seat was eliminated under a new congressional district map pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.