Allison Tant is almost halfway through her term as chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party and just past her first statewide election. Democrats lost nearly across the board. The governor's mansion and the Cabinet remained in Republican hands, while the GOP gained a veto-proof majority in the Florida House.
On Thursday, Tant announced a task force to examine where the party needs to go from here, if it wants to be competitive heading into the 2016 presidential election. The panel is co-chaired by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who backed Tant for her leadership post, and former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings.
Tant was the Northwest Florida finance chair for President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign. She and her husband, prominent lawyer Barry Richard, have a daughter and twin sons, one of whom, Jeremy, inspired their advocacy for exceptional student education. Before her children were born, Tant worked as a lobbyist.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Allison Tant:
Q: Did you have any inkling before the election that things might not go your way?
TANT: I know that we came out of the early-voting days 3 points up. And then, as we went through the weekend, we started to see a decrease in our polling. We were dropping. Some people want to conjecture that it was the $13 million that (Gov.) Rick Scott put on the air. And I think there is some truth to that. I don't know yet. That is something we're going to be looking at with this panel that we're putting together.
I got a call over the weekend to say that this was having an impact and that it was starting to hurt us. We did have an inkling, but I will tell you I was not expecting that.
I have this theory that we as Democrats are doing midterm elections the same way we do presidential elections, and we have to figure out a different -- there's something askew. And that's something I think at the national and state party level, we need to take a hard look at, the difference between midterm and presidential elections, and start plugging those holes. There is something we need to correct with the way we run those elections. Midterm elections are very different from presidential elections, and we have to get our hands around what that is and fix it.
Q: Democrats around the country separated themselves from President Obama. Do you think you should have used Obama more? Would that have helped?
TANT: I think it could have gone either way. Personally, I am an Obama loyalist. That's how I got involved with all this stuff in the first place. And I happen to highly respect my president and would welcome my president into the state at any time.
If we had had him here and Charlie (Crist) lost, everybody would have been blaming us for bringing the president in. So it's one of those things that could go either way. However, having said that, I think it's a real shame that everyone's blaming the president and blaming all Democrats for this loss. I don't think that's fair. ?Meanwhile, across the country, we had this air war going on about our president -- and there was no answer. And so that's something I want us to look at. ?That's one of the things I want to cogitate on a little more.
Q: Obama For America was so effective in 2008 and 2012 at targeting voters and turning them out. Why didn't they use what they already knew how to do to target voters this year?
TANT:They haven't provided that to us, but -- (But why not?) I don't know. That's a question you should ask them. But we did a lot of what we could. Remember, the OFA model, the Obama campaign put $20 million on the ground. That did not include messaging. That did not include ads. That did not include the fundraising infrastructure. It was $20 million on the ground game. There's not a lot of state parties or state candidates that have $20 million just to put on the ground. That's just one of those things. So we have to be realistic about what happened here.
Everybody talks about grassroots and field (organizing), which is critically important. But that costs money. Every time you send a team of folks out the door with a clipboard and names of door-knocks to go hit, it costs money. So you have to have funds to pay for that. I mean, as much as we'd like to do it with volunteers only, we have to pay canvassers to actually hit the critical mass. And that's what happened in Leon County with our canvass team, and why Gwen (Graham) had such a good turnout, is: we had those door-knocks.
Q: You're operating at a disadvantage because of redistricting, and the Legislature is well-positioned to do it again. Does the Florida Democratic Party go extinct?
TANT: No, absolutely not. We made some gains last year, we had some losses this year, we're going to have gains again in 2016 -- and the trick is to make sure we go into the next midterm stronger than we are now. My goal is for us to be in a better position by 2020, when we do the redistricting again, so that we can have some decent maps. And we still have two (redistricting) maps in play that are coming. So all hope is not lost. Things are not as bad as they seem. We kept the same number of seats in the Senate. Yes, we lost some House district races. And of course we lost the governor's race, which was a heartbreaker. None of this is fun, none of this is easy.
The other thing is: We did have 5 million voter contacts. We did have 2 million voter conversations. It's not like we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs. I mean, people were working. We had the highest number of people on the ground that we've ever had at the state party level. I know that we, along with our partners, did everything that all of us could do individually, together. We were the most coordinated we've ever been. But there was a strategic decision -- that (now) appears to me a bad one -- to leave out North Florida. And so we're going to have to focus on that and correct that. There's a lot of things -- that's one issue.
There's the money issue. There's the advertising issue. There's the nuances-in-the-Hispanic-community issue. There's the African-American turnout issue. There's the white-voter issue. There's the youth-vote issue. There's a lot of those things we have to look at as part of this task force I'm putting together. We're going to be turning over all those rocks and looking at every single one of them, and why it is that those folks turn out in a presidential year versus a nonpresidential year.
Q: The House Democrats gave up a veto-proof majority, and there's another challenge to Rep. Mark Pafford as minority leader?
TANT: We lost some heartbreaking races there. We lost some wonderful, quality people. And I'm already talking to some of them about running in the next term, whether it's for a Senate seat or a House seat. But I can tell you that the House caucus has been in turmoil since its first election for leader (since Tant became chairwoman). I've been chair for a year and nine months. The first election for House minority leader came a month after my election. It took two votes. First it was a split-down-the-middle, tie vote. Then there was an immediate second vote, where the leader at that point was elected by two to three votes; I don't remember. Four months later, at our leadership gala, they were going to unseat that leader, because there were a significant number of members who were concerned about that leader. Then, three months after that, there was an issue with the fundraising for the caucus and the dollars and where (they) went, and the House caucus voted to remove the leader. Then another election. Instead of it being a smooth election over to our current leader, it was a challenged election, a fifth vote. (Thumps table.) Then, toward the end of this last (legislative) session, another vote is being talked about. And now, next week, when they finally seat the caucus leader, it will be a seventh vote in one year and nine months.
How the optics of that is good for Florida is beyond me. As a Democrat, it is not a good picture. What is going to inspire anyone to run for office with that kind of scenario playing out? When you look at the divisiveness -- how do you think they're going to win races when they're fighting each other? You know, Mark Pafford should have been able to put together his team without all of this noise. I can tell you, I got called by donors -- as late as last night -- telling me how concerned they were: "How do I go to my clients and tell my clients to donate to the caucus when I don't even know if we're building a relationship with the right person?" Why anyone thinks that this kind of craziness is good for the caucus or the Florida Democratic Party or for any Florida Democrat is beyond me.
(This divisiveness in the party is not new.) Well, it may not be new, but it's uncalled for. ?I'm talking about elected leaders, who I think have a burden to conduct themselves like leaders and who are not. I think we've reached the point where we need to turn the page. We all need to turn the page on this and be more unified than ever, so that we can go and get this straight. All of us need to lock arms and move forward, and I would like to see the caucus do that. I'm ready to get to work. I'm ready for the bed-wetting to stop. You know, you can go ahead and continue to whack each other over the head about what went wrong, what didn't go right, what we could have done better -- the coulda shoulda woulda. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, it's a done deal! We have to marshal our energies, put on our big-girl pants and move the heck down the road. The bed-wetters need to shut up, and we need to move on.
It is time to get back to what matters, and that is protecting and standing up for the middle-class Floridian who's working every day and counting on every single person out there who's elected or who chooses to be involved with the Democratic Party to stand up for them and quit this bellyaching and be a leader and grow up. So there you have it.
I'm fed up with it. I'm fed up with it. Listen, when you've had your child -- my son was on the heart-lung machine. He was manually respirated, going down a hospital hallway ? and you cannot go sit in the fetal position and whine. You've got to keep somebody going. I mean, this is what we have to do. The testament to a party is not how bad we let ourselves melt down, but how we pick the pieces up and move on. And that is what I think we need to be doing. Pick up the pieces and move on, and stop with all of this. And that goes for the House caucus. That goes for all the (Democratic Executive Committee) members, our club and caucus members.
And I've talked to all of our presidents, I've been calling our DEC leaders. For the most part, those who worked the hardest are ready to go. Those who worked the least are screaming the loudest.