Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has the ear and the loyalty of President Barack Obama, and loads of influence among Democrats in Washington and across the country. Democratic activists in her home state of Florida, however, are poised to deliver an embarrassing snub to Wasserman Schultz later this month with the heated race to lead the state Democratic Party.
The congresswoman from Weston recruited longtime friend Allison Tant of Tallahassee to run for chair of the state party, and in recent weeks has aggressively lobbied elected officials and party activists to get behind her anointed choice.
But it looks increasingly likely that those activists may ignore the entreaties by Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Bill Nelson and instead elect Tampa activist Alan Clendenin to succeed outgoing party chairman Rod Smith.
"They're in absolute denial that they've lost," Hillsborough Democratic Chairman Chris Mitchell said of Tant and her supporters. "Now they're scrambling, and Debbie's trying to save face. ... She wants to have complete control of the (state party) and what they do, and Allison Tant gives her complete control. Debbie knows she can't control Alan and she can control Allison."
Democratic state committee members from Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties on Monday night held a non-binding vote on the race for party chairman and unanimously backed Clendenin over Tant. The way the party weighs votes in such party elections, the votes from those three Democratic strongholds could all but ensure Clendenin is the next state party chairman.
Clendenin, 53, said Wasserman Schultz urged him to drop out of the race to pave the way for Tant, but he refused.
His endorsements include U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and former gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink — both fellow Hillsborough county residents — and the state party's black and Hispanic caucuses.
"The bottom line is we're all Democrats and like with all elections, we will unify when we're done,'' Clendenin, a retired air traffic controller who would be Florida's first openly gay state party chairman, said when asked if he could work with the DNC chairwoman if he wins.
"I've been counting votes for a long time for a lot of years. The vote count we have is one that puts Allison in a very strong position," said Wasserman Schultz. "The vote is on Jan. 26 and that's the one that matters."
Tant, a top Obama fundraiser and former lobbyist who had been little known outside of Tallahassee, noted that the Monday night South Florida vote was non-binding and that she is rapidly gaining support as she meets more and more people across the state.
"It's very close and it will be a robust primary," said Tant, 51, who on Wednesday announced endorsements from most Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation (U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson and Joe Garcia of Miami-Dade; Alcee Hastings of Broward; Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch and Patrick Murphy of Palm Beach; Alan Grayson of Orange County; and Corrine Brown of Duval County) as well as seven local party officials.
Clendenin's supporters tout his vision for shaking up the party and mobilizing and organizing the grassroots, while Tant's supporters often stress her strong fundraising skills.
"It makes sense that the people who are ultimately elected by party activists are strongly supporting Allison Tant because we know what it takes to win election," Wasserman Schultz said. "Without having someone at the helm who can raise the resources, we are not going to be competitive in 2014
Wasserman Schultz's close involvement in the race has led to speculation she wants a strong ally leading the state party should she run for governor or U.S. Senate, but the DNC leader dismissed that talk.
"This is nothing more than I am leader of the party nationally and I care about my state, and I really care about making sure that we can defeat Rick Scott," she said.
Clendenin said the choice boils down to whether Democrats want a leader to tweak the party (Tant) or make significant changes (Clendenin). Tant, he said, could be "part of an incredible team to change the trajectory of the state of Florida. I want to work with Allison to be part of a team. I believe Allison would be willing to do that, but Debbie is unwilling to give her the latitude to do that."
Florida Democrats have not had as competitive and heated an election for state party chairman in at least two decades. On blogs and through emails, advocates for both candidates have attacked the rival candidate.
Tant critics have cast her as a puppet of party elites and a status quo candidate. They have pointed to a handful of donations she has made to Republican legislative candidates (Tant said they mainly went to candidates who would advocate for disabled children and that she gave to far more Democrats), and that her husband, former Democratic attorney general candidate Barry Richard, represented the Bush-Cheney campaign in the 2000 recount.
Clendenin critics say he is out of his league when it comes to the most critical element of a party's success — raising money. Tant raised at least $340,000 for Obama in the last election from Leon County alone.