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Nelson, Demings on Democrats' search for answers

A task force searching for ways to improve the fortunes of the Florida Democratic Party held its first meeting Tuesday. The 45-minute teleconference included about 20 people and was led by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and retired Orlando police chief Val Demings.

"We do have to look at everything," Demings said, including messaging, staffing, policies, voter turnout and the party's leadership. "We've got to throw everything on the table if we're going to come out more strategically with a winning message that resonates with the voters." Demings said she feels Democrats have failed to effectively communicate what they stand for to the Florida electorate.

Nelson, the longest-serving officeholder in either political party in Florida, said what happened to Democrats on Nov. 4 is part of a historical trend: The party in power always loses ground in the election in the midway point of a two-term president's second term.

"That's a historical fact. It goes way back. It applies to both Republican and Democratic presidents," Nelson said. He said Florida actually defied that trend in 2014 because Democrats didn't lose any seats in Congress: Although Miami Democrat Joe Garcia lost his seat to Republican Carlos Curbelo, Democrat Gwen Graham unseated Republican incumbent Steve Southerland in North Florida.

Nelson said the Democrats' failure to keep pace with Republicans at fund-raising has worsened because of unrestricted spending by third-party groups.

Nelson said he liked the idea of Democrats mounting a petition drive to ask voters to shift Florida's midterm elections for governor and Cabinet seats to the same cycle as presidential elections -- when turnout is usually 15 to 20 percentage points higher and Democrats have a better chance of victory. But he said it would be difficult to convince 60 percent of voters to support it.

For Florida Democrats, this cycle of soul-searching is nothing new. After the party absorbed heavy losses in 1998, the year Jeb Bush defeated Buddy MacKay in the governor's race, MacKay's running mate, former Sen. Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven, uttered this memorable line: "I don't have many friends that are Democrats. That's very telling to me."

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