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How Democrats plan to win the White House by fighting Trump — and doubt — in Florida

David Smiley and Steve Contorno, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

MIAMI -- For a Democratic Party determined to make Donald Trump a one-term president, the most obvious path to victory seems so simple and yet so complicated: Win Florida.

The nation's most populous swing state is shaping up to be make-or-break in 2020 for Trump, who likely needs Florida's 29 electoral college votes to make the reelection math work. Republicans know this, and so do Democrats, who have found success in the state just out of reach for most of the last decade.

So, as Trump prepares to hold a campaign relaunch in Orlando on June 18, Democrats are rolling out their own plan to change their fortune by spiking voter registration and rebuilding their ground game. But to re-create Barack Obama's successes in 2008 and 2012, they'll need to buck a string of narrow losses that have deflated the party faithful and sown doubt and distrust of Democratic leadership.

In interviews over last weekend and in sessions with activists at an annual leadership conference at Disney World, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Florida Democratic Party leaders laid out the structure of their strategy. They're trying to re-create the massive registered voter advantage that benefited Obama in 2008, beat back Republican efforts to eat into their margins with Hispanic voters, and hurt Trump in rural areas by hammering the Trump administration's tax policies and its struggles to help the hurricane-ravaged Panhandle.

"It's next to impossible for Trump to win the general election without Florida," Perez said in an interview. "That's why Florida is a key battleground state."

The foundation of the plan relies upon a massive effort to register hundreds of thousands of voters. The Florida Democratic Party itself has pledged to spend $2 million to register 200,000 new Democrats by March. But the bulk of a broader, ambitious voter registration effort relies on a network of non-profits working together under the coordination of 2018 gubernatorial candidate and former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and the massive field operation that remained intact after he fell about 33,000 votes short of becoming governor.

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After his loss -- a gut-punch to Democrats confident in his chances of beating congressman and Trump surrogate Ron DeSantis -- Gillum set a goal of registering or "reengaging" 1 million voters. He's bringing his fundraising prowess to the table, along with millions he controversially left unspent from his campaign in order to seed existing advocacy groups already registering voters and get them to work together.

At the same time, a campaign volunteer base that Gillum has pegged at 100,000 people remains intact under Bring it Home Florida, a nonprofit co-founded and financed by Millie Raphael, the Miami activist who led Gillum's Hispanic outreach and volunteer operations. Raphael says the group, which only activated last week, is working with other progressive organizations to register voters while also sending its own people into communities where no one is working to find voters who aren't participating.

"We're coordinating as much as we can with as many organizations as we can," said Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

The end game is to reverse course on the party's slipping registration advantage over Republicans. From Obama's first election in 2008 to the November midterms, Florida Democrats saw a nearly 700,000-voter lead over Republicans dwindle to roughly 260,000, a lead that didn't hold up when Republicans proved even better at turning out the vote in an election where voters from both parties proved to be highly motivated.

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