LAKE MARY — In the most bitter and closely fought party election in decades, Florida Democratic leaders elected former Tallahassee lobbyist Allison Tant as their new state chairwoman Saturday.
Tant defeated Hillsborough County Democratic state committeeman Alan Clendenin 587-507 after a sometimes nasty two-month campaign that featured heavy lobbying on her behalf by Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
Tant, 51, takes over a party of 4.8 million still basking in President Barack Obama's Florida victory in November — the first time since 1936 that Democratic presidential candidates won Florida twice in a row.
Democrats also are eager to take on Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his lagging approval ratings in 2014.
But the party faces the enormous challenge of an off-year election, when Republicans routinely turn out in far greater numbers than Democrats.
"We are going to have to work to out-raise, out-organize, and outwork the GOP," Tant said. "We've done it before and we're going to do it again."
That hasn't happened for Democrats since 1994, when incumbent Gov. Lawton Chiles narrowly beat challenger Jeb Bush.
From there, though, Republicans took over the entire Legislature, Bush won the governor's race in 1998 and now Republicans control every statewide elected office but for Nelson's Senate seat despite Democrats' more than 500,000 advantage in registered voters.
With little relevance in Tallahassee, Democrats struggle to fundraise even a fraction of what the Florida GOP does.
Outgoing Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith said the real challenge is to mobilize voters in a nonpresidential election year and capitalize on demographic changes that benefit Democrats: younger voters and minorities.
"Can we get them to show up in off-year elections? Can we get that same energy in off-year elections?" Smith, presiding over the chair election in his last act, asked the crowded room of Democrats at the Lake Mary Marriott.
"I don't know about you all, but I wouldn't mind attending something I've not been to in a long, long time — and that would be the inauguration of a Democratic governor in this state," Smith said. "Rick Scott has done his part for us. His work alone won't be sufficient to get us elected. But it should give us a running start."
Under Smith, Florida's Democratic Party recovered from a brutal 2010 election in which Republicans dominated.
Smith said the party's most-significant victory came in 2011 when Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown won office. Democrats started believing — and contributing — again.
Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and then lieutenant governor in 2010, said he plans to go home as soon as possible and return to private life. Smith said he needs to spend more time with his son, who is ill.
The chair race was unusually bitter — not between Tant and Clendenin, but between their supporters.
Democrats attacked each other on blogs. Some tried to block others from voting in the chair race. Smith refused to block Democrats from voting if they had been certified previously.
"I will not tolerate any effort at voter suppression," he said in a letter.
Critics attacked Tant's old lobbyist clients and noted that her husband, Tallahassee lawyer and lifelong Democrat Barry Richard, led the Bush-Cheney Florida legal team during the 2000 presidential recount.
Tant's supporters questioned Clendenin's ability to raise money and accused him of being hostile to gay rights.
On the eve of Saturday's election, liberal activist Susannah Randolph rebuked another Democrat by email when he accused another of fraud. Randolph, a backer of Tant along with husband and Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, said that tensions were so high that someone taped a sign on her office door that said "Beware of Bitches."
Shortly after Tant won, she and Clendenin called for unity.
Tant, a former lobbyist and longtime advocate for disabled children, was recruited to run for the post by her longtime friend, Wasserman Schultz. Tant raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama in the last election cycle.
Tant's fundraising skills were a key selling point.
"One number should worry you: $70 million. That's how much Rick Scott spent in 2010," said Miami-Dade Democratic chairwoman Annette Taddeo in nominating Tant.
Retired air traffic controller and union activist Clendenin cast himself as the grass-roots candidate willing to shake up the state party and status quo.
"Does our party belong to a group of Tallahassee insiders, consultants and lobbyists or does it belong to us?" he asked.
After he lost, Clendenin was elected vice chairman and claimed a measure of victory.
"A top-down approach to this party is something of the past," he said, taking the loss with grace. He hugged Tant and then held her hand high.
"Make no mistake, GOP, this team's coming to get you," Clendenin said.