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Splintered effort hurt Democrats in Hernando

The smiles still plastered on the faces of Democrats nationwide after Barack Obama's victory don't shine as brightly in Hernando County.

In an election filled with blue hope, Republicans trounced Democrats, winning all but one partisan race last week. The local GOP now holds 13 of the 17 partisan posts at the local, state and federal levels.

The red victories come at a time when Democrats were closing the gap in voter registration and enjoying enormous energy.

"I was just honestly surprised and flabbergasted," Steve Zeledon, president of the Hernando Democratic Club, said of the election results. "I'm having a hard time trying to understand it."

Amid this second-guessing, the local Democratic Party is undergoing a major transition.

The tireless Jay Rowden is stepping down as chairman of the local Democratic Executive Committee, effective in December. His wife, Diane, the county's most visible elected Democrat, lost her County Commission seat Tuesday.

Jay Rowden, who served four years at the helm and many more in various capacities, said he decided not to seek another term weeks ago. But now his departure means the party is searching for a leader at one of its lowest points in recent years.

A preliminary analysis of the voting data and interviews with political observers indicate the reasons for the collapse are lengthy and varied.

One stands out: Local party leaders say the Obama camp deserves a significant portion of the blame for running a single-minded campaign that hurt all other Democrats on the ballot.

But foremost is the issue of turnout. It helps explain why Obama wasn't successful here either. He lost Hernando to John McCain by more than 3,100 votes, according to unofficial results.

Countywide turnout hit 72 percent, well short of expectations.

Of the 10 precincts with the lowest turnout in the county, eight have a majority of registered Democrats. Of the 10 precincts with the highest turnout, Republicans hold a majority in nine.

Similarly, only four of the 32 Republican-dominated precincts saw less than 70 percent turnout.

"I guess we used every resource and tool … but we probably simply outworked them," said Ana Trinque, the chairwoman of the local GOP.

Former Hernando Democratic Party chairman Al Jenkins agreed. "I don't think the Democrats were working as hard as they should have been," he said. "I thought for sure this would be a Democrat win straight through."

Jay Rowden, who squarely takes the blame for the party's failures locally, acknowledged the party should have worked harder.

The biggest disappointment for Democrats was Precinct 11, in the heart of Brooksville's black community, where the local party and Obama campaign emphasized registering new voters. Obama won 80 percent of the vote there, but turnout reached only 64 percent.

Statewide, Obama managed to win by running up the score in solidly blue areas and converting swing voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. But his momentum didn't help elect many fellow Democrats down the ticket.

"We were hurt by the Obama campaign in the end," said Zeledon, with the Democratic Club. "They would not do anything to help local candidates."

The two entities operated independently, which was different from the 2004 structure.

Rowden initially thought it was a good idea because it allowed both to cover more ground. But the paid Obama field staffers didn't share their game plan with local Democrats, so neither targeted key voter groups, he said.

The campaign also wouldn't promote local Democratic candidates. "I think their whole goal was they wanted to keep the campaign as simple as possible and they didn't want to clutter it up with other components," Rowden said.

The Obama campaign didn't return calls for comment.

To compound the problem, the Obama team took the party's volunteer base, leaving the local party with inadequate staffing. They scoffed at a request to help the party collect absentee ballots.

"We didn't turn Hernando blue," Zeledon said. "I think we could have with more cooperation."

To support local Democrats' assertion, look no farther than the undervotes: Thousands more voted in the presidential race than in the local races.

If these Obama voters were educated about whom to support in local races, it could have tipped the balance in at least Democratic Commissioner Chris Kingsley's race. He lost his seat by 1,300 votes; about 1,400 more Democrats voted for Obama than for Kingsley.

Hampered by costly mistakes

It's still too early to know whether the local Democratic Party's aggressive strategy to court marginal Republicans, a bloc the party identified at about 10,000 voters, paid dividends.

One thing is clear: It came at the expense of a more traditional lobbying effort aimed at independents and newly registered voters.

Not targeting this last group is probably one of the most costly mistakes Democrats made. Rowden thought the Obama team was targeting this group, but apparently it didn't.

"We were sidetracked by swing groups," Rowden explained two days after the election. "We should have identified it as a vulnerable group, but we didn't. I didn't."

It backfired because Republican forces focused intensely on these voters.

Tenderfoot GOP operative Blaise Ingoglia, a home builder by trade, used property appraiser records to identify residents who had moved to Hernando since 2004. These voters moved here when property values were high and likely lost money when the bubble burst and the economy tanked.

It was a ripe group for his antitax Government Gone Wild message, and he spent thousands of dollars targeting them with propaganda. The sentiment likely spread from the County Commission races to others, including president, Republicans and Democrats observed.

The local party and Democratic candidates were impotent when it came to countering this negative and often misleading information, particularly the two Democratic county commissioners, Diane Rowden and Kingsley. Likewise, when two outside political groups funded by local builders and real estate agents launched unprecedented attack ads in the race against Rowden, she did little to fight back.

"I think Diane has a tendency not to want to get in the gutter," Zeledon said. "In a way I can understand it … but you have to play."

Zeledon said the Rowdens were selfless in promoting other Democrats and it probably came at the cost of Diane Rowden's own campaign.

"The Rowdens worked tirelessly to get Barack Obama elected in this county, and I think they ignored their own campaign," he said. Jay Rowden acknowledged that Zeledon was probably right.

Looking to the future with fresh hope

Going forward, local Democrats are focusing on what they did right. For one, the gap between Obama and McCain was smaller than President Bush's margin of victory in 2004.

It helps that Democrats narrowed the Republican advantage in terms of party registration numbers. Also, Democrats bested Republicans in overall early voting, thanks to a more active absentee ballot campaign.

Party officials will elect a new leader Dec. 5 when the Rowdens step to the side.

Already, names are floating throughout Democratic circles about who will take over the party. Bob Holmes, a party volunteer who worked with the Obama campaign, is among those interested.

Holmes said he doesn't think the party needs a new vision, but it needs to better target its message and work harder to educate voters. "I think what we are going to have to do is really improve our work ethic," he said.

The Rowdens said they plan to stay involved at the local and state levels.

Jay Rowden downplayed his and his wife's influence on the local party.

"It's not like we are a dynasty," he said. "None of us are trained professionals. We are just everyday people trying to do what we can."

Some party leaders want to draft Diane Rowden to run against Republican U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite in 2010. She said the last thing she can think about now is another campaign, but she didn't rule out the possibility.

"I never say never," she said.

John Frank can be reached at or (352) 754-6114.

Splintered effort hurt Democrats in Hernando 11/08/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 10:36am]
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