HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson criticized the billionaires funding television ad attacks against him in his re-election campaign, while other top Florida Democrats bashed Republican Gov. Rick Scott as they all gathered Saturday night for their annual Jefferson Jackson dinner in Hollywood.
"This is a time of extraordinary outside money coming into Florida to try to buy certain elections," Nelson said at a news conference before the dinner. "When this kind of money comes in to influence, and comes in from billionaires, it is obvious they are not interested in Florida — they are interested in their own particular agenda."
Nelson, Florida's only Democratic statewide office holder, is seeking a third term and faces what will be an expensive and contentious battle with the likely GOP nominee, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers. Although he is far behind in fundraising, Mack is getting a big boost from super PACs.
American Crossroads, a political action committee overseen by conservative strategist Karl Rove, has reserved $6.2 million in air time to link Nelson to President Barack Obama's agenda. Freedom PAC, a new super PAC supporting Mack and funded by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has $1 million.
Saturday's event at the Westin Diplomat hotel gives Democrats a chance to do some cheerleading in advance of the Nov. 6 presidential, U.S. Senate and state legislative elections, and test the waters for potential Democratic challengers for Scott.
For Florida Democrats, Scott, who doesn't face voters again until 2014, sounded like a bigger nemesis than Romney.
"The Republican Party has lost their way and have moved so far to the right that they have become the Tea Party," said state party chairman Rod Smith. "We believe (Scott) has become a voice of the Republican Party of Florida. Apparently their presidential candidate must not agree: On 54 trips, I don't think they've gotten together. I'm assuming Gov. Romney thinks Tallahassee is a no-fly zone right now."
Democratic State Sen. Nan Rich of Broward, who is running for the party's gubernatorial nomination to run against Scott, criticized the governor's statements about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Obama's signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
"We have a governor that is saying he is not going to implement what he calls optional components," she said. "He includes in optional the (insurance) exchanges." If the state won't set up the exchange, the federal government will do that for Florida, Rich said.
Under the health care law, by 2014 states must implement a health insurance exchange, a web-based marketplace where people can shop for insurance or defer to a federal program. States need to submit plans to the federal government that demonstrate their readiness to launch health exchanges by Nov. 16.
Scott says Florida will not begin implementing the federal health care law because he believes it is bad policy and too costly.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that "Scott and the Republican Legislature have pushed through some of the most draconian cuts we have seen" — citing cuts to K-12 education and rape counseling centers. She also criticized Romney for not releasing several years of tax returns.
Wasserman Schultz also capitalized on the latest dustup about Romney staying at his former company Bain Capital three years longer than he had previously said.
"There is still more about his time at Bain Capital that Mitt Romney doesn't want voters to know about," Wasserman Schultz said. "If voters can't trust him to tell the truth about his own past … how on earth can we trust him to lead our country?"
The event was held in the state's most Democratic county — Broward has nearly 570,000 registered Democrats. There is no question that Obama and Nelson will win Broward — the question is whether Broward can turn out large enough numbers to neutralize GOP votes in more conservative parts of the state to help the president and Nelson keep his seat.
There are about 450,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans statewide among the 11.3 million voters, but that edge doesn't guarantee Democrats' success. Florida helped elect Obama in 2008 but the state also elected Republicans Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in 2010 — and Rubio remains a potential vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney.
Democrats will also have to appeal to the growing contingent of more than 2.7 million independent voters and Hispanics who comprise about 13 percent of the state's electorate.
The race between Nelson and Mack is close. A Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll released this week showed Nelson leading Mack 47 to 42 percent. The poll found Obama and Romney essentially tied, with the president leading by one point: 46-45. Nelson said Saturday that he will campaign alongside Obama — he hopes to appear with the president in Orlando Friday.