For the first time in two decades, Florida Democrats are likely to field a gubernatorial candidate well known across the state. Charlie Crist is breaking Democratic fundraising records and taking on an incumbent who is among the most unpopular and vulnerable governors in the country. But even as former President Bill Clinton fired up 1,600 party activists and donors Saturday night at a swank, oceanfront hotel in South Florida, Democrats in America's biggest battleground state faced a bleak reality: Election Day in four months could pull their already beleaguered party to a new low.
If Crist unseats Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Nov. 4, nothing else matters much because holding Florida's top office would mean a dramatic improvement in the party's ability to raise money and rebuild.
The party is poised to bet its future on a lifelong Republican.
Underscoring the goal, his campaign made sure to liberally distribute Crist stickers and signs. Fortune cookies at dinner held the message "Charlie Crist is in your future!"
But the star power Saturday night was Clinton's.
The Democratic icon noted that he first addressed the Florida Democrats' annual dinner in 1981, soon after he had lost re-election as Arkansas governor. Then-Gov. Bob Graham said Clinton should come even though he had lost. "You probably figured out why you lost and it would be helpful for us if you told us," Graham told him.
Clinton spoke to the state's party activists again in 1983 and 1987, and in 1991 Florida Democrats launched his presidential campaign by delivering him a victory in the party's "straw poll" election.
"Florida has been very good to me and to Hillary," Clinton said, his voice hoarse. "I love Florida."
Neither Crist nor his Democratic primary opponent Nan Rich addressed the crowd, but the former Republican governor was mobbed with supporters as he entered the hotel early in the evening.
Other than the governor's race, where recent polls point to a toss-up, Florida Democrats are barely showing a pulse.
Party leaders failed to recruit anybody to run for the statewide offices of chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner, winding up with obscure longshots on the ballot. Two credible Democrats, George Sheldon and Perry Thurston, are running for attorney general, but neither has much money to take on Republican incumbent Pam Bondi, who has raised millions.
"It's been more difficult to recruit candidates than I wanted it to be," acknowledged Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant, who organized Saturday's Leadership Blue Gala.
The outlook down the ballot isn't much better. Talk a year ago that Democrats stood to gain at least five seats in the Florida House has given way to more common predictions that Democrats may net just one additional House seat — or even lose ground. The only competitive Florida Senate race features Democratic incumbent Maria Sachs of Delray Beach trying to fend off a Republican challenge by former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, ensuring Democrats will spend scarce resources on defense.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's approval ratings have been trending downward, with most polls showing only about 42 percent of Americans approve of his performance. Democratic turnout traditionally lags Republicans by at least 4 percentage points in non-presidential election years, making the party's job even harder while the Florida GOP overwhelmingly outraises and outspends the Democrats.
Clinton said it's critical for the party to improve voter turnout in off-year elections, and noted that it cost Democrat Alex Sink her congressional campaign against David Jolly in Pinellas County.
"We should have won that special election for Congress. Alex Sink won the independent voters by almost twice the margin that President Obama did, but the registered Democrats did not turn out," Clinton said, noting that Terry McAuliffe is governor of Virginia because African-Americans turned out in 2013 at the same rate they did for Obama in 2008. "If they can do it, you can do it."
Clinton urged Democrats to target voters with the most at stake — particularly those who would benefit from Medicaid expansion that has been blocked by Republican leaders in Tallahassee.
Nonpartisan studies, Clinton said, have concluded that accepting the federally funded health coverage would create 78,000 new jobs in Florida — and generate more than enough revenue to pay for Florida eventually assuming 10 percent of the cost.
"Why would you walk away from 78,000 new jobs?" Clinton asked.
Tant, who took the helm of the state party last year, noted that Saturday's fundraising dinner at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa drew the youngest and largest crowd ever as evidence of how fired up Democrats are to unseat Gov. Scott. The dinner raised a record $1.1 million.
"The Democratic Party is strong, we are clearly rebuilding, and we are set for the best days ahead," she said, promising to build the most aggressive grass roots organizing campaign ever created by the state party.
So far Crist has opened four field offices, while the Florida GOP has 49.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and a Broward County resident, said Tant is doing everything right to rebuild the state party, but it won't be a quick process.
"Let's keep in mind just how deep a hole the Florida Democrats have been in and have been for a very long time," she said.
There is some good news for Democrats, particularly the state's changing demographics. Since the last governor's race in 2010, the percentage of the electorate that is white has dropped from 70 percent to 66 percent. Crist campaign officials note that if only 1 percent more African-Americans had turned out in 2010, Sink would have beaten Scott.
The most competitive congressional races in the state also are in areas where increased turnout is likely to help Democrats — Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and around Tallahassee.
Crist brushed off a question about debating Rich, a former legislator from Broward.
"Rick Scott has now spent about $18 million on (attacking) me, so I need to keep my eyes focused on him," he said.
Joe Kreps stood nearby holding a "Nan Rich" campaign sign and saying he would have to "hold his nose" to vote for Crist if he wins the nomination.
"Nan Rich spent 12 years fighting for me and fighting for equal rights and fighting for all people against the likes of Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and Rick Scott," he said.
The annual fundraising dinner had long been called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, but the party decided to change the name in deference to complaints about celebrating a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, and killer of American Indians, Andrew Jackson.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.