Can the Democrats see off the Tea Party threat in South Florida?

Dave Roberts has hit the US mid-term campaign trail in Southern Florida, where incumbent Democratic Congressman Ron Klein is facing a huge challenge from former-army colonel and Tea Party favourite, Allen West.

With the US midterms only a few days away, Dave Roberts has left the drizzle of the UK to follow the campaign trail in sunny South Florida, where incumbent Democrat Congressman Ron Klein is facing a huge challenge from ex-army colonel and Tea Party favourite, Allen West

During good times for the Democrats Florida is a swing state. A mobile and culturally mixed population, with large disparities in wealth, this makes many parts of the state a tough place to campaign. In district 22 the traditional split is 37% Democrat, 37% Republican with 26% registered as Independent.

In the Klein campaign office in Delray Beach, enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers arrive early and leave late. They hit the phones hard, encouraging registered Democrats to vote early; they distribute posters and knock on doors – much like the final days of a UK election. But are the residents of South Florida listening and responding?

I spent the weekend before I started on the campaign trail with my sister’s family, doing what Americans do at this time of year – watching ice hockey and preparing for Halloween. I cheered my young nephew playing goalie for the Golden Wolves, sat ring side at a Panthers game, hung out at a birthday pool party, watched the Dolphins defend their winning streak in a sports bar and spent what seemed like hours browsing the costume rails at the Halloween emporium ‘Party City”.

During that time I met mums, dads and grandparents – businessmen and women, health care workers and teachers. We talked about life in the UK, analysed the kids’ performances on the ice and compared the contents of lunch boxes. But what we hardly discussed at all was politics. I asked people’s opinions and many just rolled their eyes, or shook their heads as if saying “hey, what can we do about it?”

Yet these are not unmotivated people – they are not short of opinions, they know what is going on in their city, state and country. South Florida is not the land of “Guns and God”, this is a community of educated people from all over the world. In fact, it is hard to find a life long Floridian. The joke in ‘SoFla’ is that if you’ve been there for five years, you’re a native.

There are big issues here – skyrocketing homeowners insurance, healthcare costs and above all else jobs and the economy – the state ranks in the top 20% for unemployment. Klein has dutifully supported the Obama stimulus package, he voted for healthcare reform and proposed serious reforms to Florida homeowners insurance. But there is a nagging feeling that the Republicans and the Tea Party movement will take this seat.

The problem, as so often in politics, is the emotional issues. These are being ably captured and exploited by the Republicans and the Tea Party. These issues are more abstract than jobs and insurance reform. It’s all about a feeling that somehow America has moved away from what it is supposed to be. That somehow the vision of the founding fathers has been distorted and life is becoming un-American. That “they” have control and “we” need to take it back.

These issues don’t generate hard facts or statistics, they don’t withstand scrutiny, but they resonate with many voters.  They motivate people, and motivation is the key to these elections.

Much has been written about the “enthusiasm gap”. This is the gap that has become a chasm between the motivated Republicans and the disillusioned Democrats. This gap is common at this period in the electoral cycle. It is the gap between the victors and the losers. The defeated are motivated to rebuild their support, while the victorious supporters are disillusioned by the reality of power.

Yet today that gap is huge. Obama and the Democrats could never keep the levels of support they achieved in 2008. That election was a one off – a moment in time when usually apathetic voters turned out in droves, to be part of what became an historic election. Keeping those supporters motivated was always going to be a challenge, made even harder as the reality of dealing with a nose-diving economy took hold.

And now the Tea Party has succeeded in mobilising the right – they have touched the emotional nerves that get people motivated. The Republicans are running a campaign against everything and in favour of very little. They are not offering a positive agenda, but then they don’t need to. The mission on the right is to get their people to the polls and to do that they must be angry, or scared or desperate – or preferably all three.

Will the hockey moms turn out, and which way will they vote? My feeling is that here in South Florida they want to support Obama and the Democrats, to keep the progressive agenda on track, to keep the hope of a better future alive. They are naturally moderate and don’t respond to extreme views. But as always with marginal seats it will be down to organisation, motivation and a little bit of luck.

And just in case you’re interested, the Panthers won, the Golden Wolves lacked organisation in front of the net, the Dolphins lost and after debating the merits of many we went with ‘old school’ and chose the Darth Vader costume for Halloween.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.