With new party leadership, an advantage in voter registration, and a vulnerable Republican governor seeking re-election, Florida Democrats should be in a strong position, but the outlook isn't all that dazzling.
Even though they outnumber Republicans in Florida, Democrats have an abysmal track record when it comes to winning elections, something they hope to fix as party activists from throughout the state gather in Hollywood on Saturday to begin two days of strategizing, schmoozing and fundraising.
"We've got a lot of statewide races in 2014 that we have an opportunity to win," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Broward Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar said his party is in turnaround mode and ready to win. "I don't think the sins of the past will be repeated," he said.
Despite the positive spin, for South Floridians used to Democratic dominance at home, a look at the state picture is jarring. Representing Floridians in the U.S. Senate, Congress, governor and cabinet and state Legislature are 124 Republicans and 69 Democrats.
Democrats have won just six of the last 22 statewide elections: President Barack Obama's two victories, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's three wins, and Alex Sink's single term as chief financial officer. A Democrat hasn't been elected governor since 1994.
Republicans dominate for many reasons, and the factors are intertwined, making the Democrats' task much more difficult.
Democrats' apparent advantage in registered voters can be misleading.
Statewide, 40 percent of registered voters are Democrats, 35 percent Republicans, and 25 percent independent or no party affiliation. But the Democrats are concentrated in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where they make up 49 percent of registered voters.
The high concentration of Democrats in South Florida makes the state as a whole appear more Democratic than it really is, said Charles Zelden, a professor of history and legal studies who specializes in politics and voting at Nova Southeastern University.
Elsewhere in the state, Democrats don't always vote Democratic, said Peter Feaman, of Boynton Beach, who represents Palm Beach County on the state Republican Party's governing board and Florida at the Republican National Committee.
"Democrats in north Florida — and by north Florida I mean north of Lake Okeechobee — are conservative by nature. Even though there's more Democrats by registration, they're not northeast Democrats. They are conservative, southern Democrats," Feaman said.
Elections for governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner take place in off years between presidential elections.
Obama, who narrowly won Florida with 50 percent of the vote, had a campaign organization he started building the moment he won the 2008 election. "President Obama had a huge, huge, huge team down here, and had ample money," said former state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell of Fort Lauderdale, the unsuccessful 2006 Democratic nominee for state attorney general.
Voter interest drops off in non-presidential years. And the voters who tend to lose interest and stay at home tend to be people who'd vote Democratic, said Jim Kane, a South Florida pollster and lobbyist who also teaches political science at the University of Florida. That played a big role in the tea party wave that swept droves of Democrats out of office in 20120.
Obama himself acknowledged the problem at a Democratic fundraiser Wednesday night in Miami. "It's going to be absolutely critical that everybody here feels the same urgency and intensity over the next year and a half leading up to the midterm elections, as you did in 2008 and 2012," he said.
Florida is expensive and Republicans have a huge financial advantage.
A campaign requires lots of money for TV ads. "The cost of running for any type of statewide office is becoming prohibitive," Campbell said. "The thought of trying to raise $10 million to $12 million, it's just unfathomable." And that's for lower level offices. Gov. Rick Scott may hit the $100 million mark for his re-election campaign.
Republican control of the Legislature and governor's office makes it much harder for Democrats to raise the kind of money they need to run successful campaigns. "They [Republicans] can make it very difficult on anybody who's going to give money to a statewide candidate that's a Democrat," Kane said.
Democrats hope they can make up some of the gap with their new state chairwoman, Allison Tant. Under Tant, a major Democratic fundraiser pushed for the job by Wasserman Schultz, and new state party finance chairman Andrew Weinstein, a Coral Springs lawyer who was a major fundraiser for Obama, the party expects to break attendance and fundraising records for its annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner on Saturday.
Florida is big.
In a state with 11.8 million registered voters, it's difficult to win by traveling around the state and meeting with small groups of people, hoping to capture the public's imagination and win enough news media attention to get people to notice. The state has 10 media markets, which means a prominent figure in one part of the state can be virtually unknown elsewhere.
Democrats don't have a farm team.
Without anyone in lower level statewide elected offices, it's harder to find candidates for governor or U.S. Senate. "Outside of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, there are very few Democrats who hold any significant offices. If you don't have that, you don't have the bench of people to graduate to higher levels, and you're never going to win a major office in this state," Kane said.
Ceasar thinks mayors from places like Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa ought to be tapped. "They have people jumping them in the supermarket and the drug store every day. Therefore they have a better feeling for the pulse or the temperament of the public," he said.
Still, Wasserman Schultz said Democrats have plenty of reason for optimism.
"You can't make a generalization about a party's or a candidate's success in a statewide election, because every race is different," she said. "We're getting better organized and moving the state party into the next generation, recruiting the next generation of leaders, and I think as a result we're going to see a lot more statewide success for Florida."
Perhaps the best thing the Democrats have going for them is Scott's unpopularity. He was had a favorable rating from just 33 percent of voters surveyed in a March Quinnipiac University poll. Ceasar said there's a Democratic "hunger" over the governor's race.
And Zelden said Democrats don't have to despair. "You can take Florida," he said. "It's tight. It'll be tough, but it's winnable."
Wasserman Schultz won't intervene to help Broward candidate who was denied speaking slot at Democrats' dinner at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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