With Florida in the throes of the wildest and most wide-open election in decades, Democrats girded against a Republican-friendly political climate and gathered Saturday for one of the state party's most successful annual fundraising dinners.
About 1,300 officeholders and activists attended the dinner at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, which raised more than $700,000. The 2010 election features a tight governor's race, a topsy-turvy U.S. Senate contest and three statewide campaigns for Florida's Cabinet.
"Folks in this room understand what's at stake — one of the most important elections Florida has ever had," said political consultant Steve Schale, who led Barack Obama's winning presidential campaign. "We don't have to bring out most of the (Obama) voters in 2010. Just some of them."
The Democratic Party's best shot may be the governor's race, with Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink sitting back as Republicans Rick Scott and Bill McCollum wage war with television attack ads. Though she holds one of the most powerful public offices in the state, Sink is portraying herself as an outsider in Republican-controlled Tallahassee.
"Sometimes, I sit at those Cabinet meetings, thinking to myself: 'Who are you people? And what in the world are you doing for Florida?' " she asked the crowd. "I'm fed up with the lack of leadership and the absence of direction."
Even though McCollum and Scott are spending millions of dollars while Sink holds her fire, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the Democratic front-runner competitive against both Republicans. "She does seem to be in an enviable position," said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark. ''She's steady regardless of which candidate she's against."
But Sink faces challenges: She is not well known in Florida, having run for office only once before, in 2006. Some Democrats worry that a long-shot, independent campaign by Bud Chiles, the son of the former governor, could siphon votes away.
Democrats are gloating over the waves of scandal shaking the Republican Party of Florida, including charges of fraud and money laundering brought against the former state party chairman. "Floridians are forced to wonder: Which Republican leader or party boss are they going to take out in handcuffs next?" quipped the state party chairwoman, Karen Thurman. On Nov. 2, she added, "Democrats, we have to seize this opportunity."
But first, Democratic voters will have to pick their nominees in two increasingly bitter primaries on Aug. 24: the Senate contest between U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and real estate mogul Jeff Greene, and the attorney general's race between state Sens. Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber.