TALLAHASSEE — Ten days after Florida Democrats suffered major election losses, Karen Thurman announced plans to step down Friday after six years as state party chairwoman.
Thurman's departure, which was widely expected, clears the way for the dispirited party to anoint a new leader heading into the 2012 presidential election.
The early front-runner for chairman is Rod Smith of Gainesville, a former state senator and state attorney and running mate of Alex Sink, who narrowly lost the contest for governor to Republican Rick Scott.
Smith, who will turn 61 on Sunday, ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006. He told the News Service of Florida on Friday night that he planned to make an announcement about the post next week.
"I certainly have had some encouraging phone calls," Smith said. "But we are Democrats, and we always have a lot of opinions. I am leaning toward it. But I am also willing to do whatever it takes to make sure we have a chairman Democrats are comfortable with from Pensacola to Key West."
State Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said Smith's other assets include knowledge of the Legislature and experience with reapportionment, the once-a-decade politically charged work of redrawing district lines for Congress and the Legislature following a census. The new districts will be in use for the first time in the 2012 election cycle.
Smith is a precinct committeeman from Alachua County, but is not eligible to run for the state chairmanship until he is a chairman of a county Democratic executive committee. Saunders said that process is already in motion.
The chairman will be elected in a vote, probably in January, of nearly 200 Democrats who make up the state party's executive board. The group includes committeemen and committeewomen from all 67 counties, along with eight county party chairmen, eight legislators, seven members of Congress and Sen. Bill Nelson.
State and national Democratic leaders issued statements Friday praising the performance of Thurman, a former member of Congress and state senator from Dunnellon. Thurman praised the party's development of a new media communications program and a strong fundraising record.
Democrats in Florida outnumber Republicans by about 700,000 voters, but the party's fortunes can't sink much lower. Democrats struggled to motivate voters to get to polls, especially in liberal Broward and Palm Beach counties.
As a result, Republicans won the U.S. Senate seat, governorship and all three Cabinet seats and picked up four seats in Congress, two in the state Senate and five in the state House of Representatives.