In the Spotlight: Why Bother Here, Democrats?
Why April Freeman’s running for Congress as a Democrat is a daunting political challenge
April Freeman lost in the July special election to fill Trey Radel's vacated Congressional seat. But she is pushing on toward November.
Lee County businesswoman April Freeman—whose name might be increasingly familiar to more Southwest Floridians now than when her campaign for Congress started a year ago—has faced comparisons to Don Quixote and one-in-a-thousand-years rainstorms.
She’s encountered curiosity, condescension and sympathy. But she also has an unusually long list of donors, a strong, if relatively small, cheering section, and a deep belief, unshaken by statistics or history, that portends otherwise, that she can win election as a Democrat.
“When I volunteered in the last presidential election, I met so many people who told me they never had anyone in office who cared about their issues and their best interests,” says Freeman, 50, who’s making her first run for office in District 19, which includes parts of Lee and Collier counties, neither of which has elected a Democrat to Congress since she’s been alive. “When I talk about my issues, my concern for the economy, the environment, education—that resonates with them. I get support from all sides.”
As for things like Republican dominance in voter registration or other Democrats’ past losses, “I never gave it a thought,” she says. “I knew I was the best person for the job, and when people hear what I stand for, they like it. A representative should represent everyone. The party shouldn’t be an issue.”
In fact, Freeman says she was a registered Republican most of her life, changing to Democrat about 10 years ago. “The economy was getting worse, and it was Republican policies taking us in that direction,” she says, adding that she also considers herself a “social moderate.”
Partisan numbers were not part of her equation when she kicked off her race even before U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, a first-term Fort Myers Republican, resigned after pleading guilty to cocaine possession. The special election called for June 24 to fill the vacancy sped up her timetable considerably; regardless of results in that race with Republican Curt Clawson and Libertarian Ray Netherwood, she’s filed to run again in November, facing the same field plus write-in Timothy Rossano.
Against the Odds
If Freeman wins, it will make stunning political history in any number of ways. Southwest Florida is widely considered one of the nation’s most reliable Republican voting blocks. No Democrat for Congress has won this area in about 50 years. It’s been 26 years since a Democrat won any partisan Collier County race, and 18 years since it happened in Lee.
Those results followed soaring Republican voter registration. Democrats held a majority several decades ago, then the influx of Midwestern Republican retirees and the “Reagan revolution” put the GOP ahead. Now Republican voters strongly outnumber Democrats, and while minor party and independent registration is also booming, in Southwest Florida those voters trend Republican.
In the political version of chicken-or-egg, Democratic voters fret over the lack of serious candidates to support, while party leaders fret over the lack of voters, which makes it harder to attract serious or viable candidates.
Experts, mindful of recent victories by Republicans first considered long shots, agree you should never say never in politics, even regarding a Democrat’s electability in Southwest Florida. But what they say a Democrat needs to win is hard to find: someone with a business background, widespread community recognition and at least $2 million to spend on the race. Then comes charisma, spotless backgrounds and issue knowledge.
“The reality is that it’s virtually impossible for a Democrat to win here in this current climate,” says Dr. Peter Bergerson, a Florida Gulf Coast University political science professor. “It would be the equivalent of a political tsunami if a Democrat won here in 2014 and probably 2016.”
Dennis Pearlman, who consults for local candidates, says if a Democrat eying a partisan race asked him for campaign advice, he’d use the analogy of a person who’s 5-foot-6 and wants to play top-level college basketball. Not to say it’s never happened or can’t be done, “but it’s very, very, very hard … maybe if they had the time to meet all 300,000 (congressional) voters personally and get beyond the label, that would help.”
Otherwise, he might tell them that, as in sports, there are other ways to be involved. “Maybe you can’t be on the team, but you can be a coach, or a trainer, or lead the boosters,” he says. “A candidate may want to push issues, or give back, and there are other ways of doing that than by being a candidate.”
Most candidates think in terms of issues, and what they want to do. “But I tell them that comes after the election. First, you have to get elected, and the question is how do you do that. Democrats here have a much harder time getting there,” Pearlman says.
Lee County Democrats thought they had an ideal candidate in 2010, when Cole Peacock ran against Republican Matt Caldwell for an open state house seat. Peacock was an executive for a major corporation (Chico’s) with extensive support from the business community along with high-profile community activities.
A conservative, he mirrored Republican positions on many issues. He’d worked politically for both Democrats and Republicans in the past, and says more than half his donations came from Republicans who actively campaigned for him. He raised money—not as much as Caldwell, but enough for a legitimate, professional race.
Republicans had a solid district voter majority, but Democrats thought Peacock’s business resumé and name ID would sway some GOP voters along with independents.
Peacock lost big, with 38 percent of the vote to Caldwell’s 58 percent. Caldwell certainly brought strengths and supporters to the table, but Democrats were disappointed at such low numbers for a candidate they thought had cross-party appeal.
“I thought elections were about the person and the issues, but a lot of voters won’t look beyond the party,” Peacock says.
Collier County’s Democratic state committeeman Steve Hemping thinks that applies in Collier, where Democratic candidates do the worst in absentee ballots. When so many voters are part-time residents, he says, they are less familiar with local issues or people, and not around for campaigns. But they vote, and usually follow straight party lines.
“We can have really qualified, serious candidates, who run a great race, and they don’t just lose. They get shellacked,” says Will Prather, a former Lee County Democratic chairman.
Strategy with a Problem
Many Democrats hope for independent voters’ support. If Democrats and independents combine, they outnumber Republicans.
It hasn’t worked that way yet. Mistaking nonpartisan registration for non-aligned voters is a mistake, Bergerson says. “Many have opinions and leanings; they just don’t want to identify with a party for whatever reason,” he says. “Some are very right-wing, some are very left-wing, and many don’t vote at all.”
Hemping says Democratic activists have tried targeting nonpartisan voters, but it’s a frustrating task. Many just aren’t interested, others have strong opinions about a candidate despite avoiding the party, and some have such specific or unusual issues it’s hard to find a message with widespread appeal. “Just looking at the numbers, you’d think that strategy would work,” he says of bringing independents under a partisan tent. “But it’s very difficult to reach them.”
Former state Sen. Burt Saunders tried a twist on that approach. Saunders, a Naples attorney, won more than a half-dozen county and state legislative races with wide margins as a Republican. Then, after being termed out of the Florida Senate, he decided to run for Congress against Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack.
Beating an incumbent in the primary seemed unlikely, so Saunders decided to run NPA—no party affiliation. He kept his Republican registration, but that didn’t show on the ballot when he faced Mack in November 2008—an election open to all voters, which Saunders saw as another advantage given his strong name recognition.
Saunders, who won by double digits in the past, got 14 percent of the vote. Even the Democrat, an unknown with no money and some personal baggage, had 25 percent. The only difference in Saunders from in his past races was the party.
Saunders laughs now about being one of the nation’s top five vote-getters—as an independent. “You can’t really fight the party,” he says. “And basically in Southwest Florida, most people vote their party. There may be 5 or 10 percent who switch and that’s where the real fight is, for that small percentage that’s up for grabs.”
Adding to Democrats’ dismay is partisan fervor that spills over into non-political matters, especially in overheated presidential elections.
Prather, the former Democratic chairman, manages his family business, the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers. A few years ago, when he was a national convention delegate and got widespread news coverage in that role, the hate mail flooded his office and phones. Dozens of people and groups cancelled their theater plans, citing his partisan activities.
“The voice messages I got were very visceral, vitriolic, hateful,” he says. “Then there was all the hate mail…. There was so much anger there, it was very hurtful” to see that local division over a national process.
Will Switching Work?
If you can’t beat them, why not join them? Jim Roach, who lost two congressional races here as a Democrat, has done just that. Roach is now a Republican campaigning for a Cape Coral state House seat. Any Democrat who hopes to win, he says, must at least gain substantial financial support from state and national party groups; support that’s been lacking in the past as the party sent resources to districts where they saw better odds of winning.
Reflecting Southwest Florida’s basic conservatism, Roach often went to the right on many Democratic issues in his earlier races. He switched parties a year ago, becoming a self-described moderate Republican. “So many voters here would hear you’re a Democrat, and that was the end of the conversation. They weren’t interested in hearing anything else,” he says.
Most candidates, including Freeman, prefer to talk about how much agreement and support they get from those who hear their message. But Pearlman, the consultant, says he warns candidates about the “the echo chamber,” about how people they know or meet personally are likely to be positive. “You have to be careful that you’re not just hearing from people who think like you do or want to be polite,” he says.
Freeman, meanwhile, thinks she’ll get that extra party help this year. She’s raised more than $100,000—greater than past Democrats, and something party leaders want to see before chipping in more money—hired professional staff, attended campaign schools and gained endorsements from national organizations.
“She’s met all the thresholds,” Hemping says. “It’s her first time out, but she’s done her homework, she’s good on issues and she’s a woman, which helps attract women voters. We’re telling the party they have to help.”
Given the trends, you might wonder why Democrats run. But the election picture isn’t totally bleak. Democrats have won several Southwest Florida nonpartisan races, especially in smaller areas where it’s easier to make personal contact and less expensive to campaign. Seats on special district boards (Steve Hemping, East Naples fire district), city councils (Marni Sawicki in Cape Coral and Levon Simms, Veronic Shoemaker and Anne Knight in Fort Myers) and the Lee County school board (Jane Kuckel)—races where no candidate has a party label on the ballot—have recently gone to Democrats elected by solid margins.
Beyond a notch in the “win” column, a candidate who’s already won at least once has advantages going into the next race. Those victories help lay crucial groundwork for future elections.
Boosting statewide candidates’ total vote is another focus for Democratic activists here. Conventional wisdom holds that a Democrat who gets 38 percent or higher in Lee or Collier will win statewide.
Hemping’s proud of bringing Collier’s Democratic organization up from about 10 active members about 12 years ago to nearly 100 in time for President Obama’s first election, when Collier’s 38 percent for Obama caught eyes around the state. “At least we have a presence now,” Hemping says.
And even though Peacock, who lost as a Democrat, has gone on to help Republican candidates win, he thinks stronger competition could help everyone, and help stave off Republican infighting. “I still wish things were just a little more evenly split” between the two parties, he says. “It would be so much more interesting if they were.”
Party registrations in Southwest Florida as of May 2014:
1988: The last time a Democrat won a Collier County partisan election, when Sam Colding was re-elected property appraiser
1996: The last time a Democrat won a Lee County partisan election, when Bill Fussell won election as tax collector after being appointed to the post