Thursday, February 22, 2018
Opinion

Are Florida's political parties relevant anymore?

There's an old saying among university faculty members that politics in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

The expression came to mind watching the impressively Machiavellian maneuvers of assorted Democratic and Republican activists vying to become the next leaders of their respective state parties. These races seem to grow increasingly heated just as the parties become less and less relevant.

The Democrats have been particularly ruthless and conniving, as activists in assorted county parties stealthily worked to knock out of contention several top candidates to lead the beleaguered state party. Victims included Alan Clendenin of Tampa, vice chairman of the state party; former congressional candidate Susannah Randolph, one of the state's leading political organizers; former state Sen. Dwight Bullard of Miami-Dade; and former lieutenant governor nominee Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade.

On the Republican side, state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, is trying to hold his $115,000-a-year party chairmanship from Sarasota state Committeeman Christian Ziegler, who insists the state GOP needs a full-time chief. Underlying fissures represented in that race include friction between Republican state senators and state House members, Donald Trump loyalists versus Republicans skeptical of him, and an unprecedented split between the state party and the state's most important Republican, Gov. Rick Scott, who is widely expected to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018.

Ziegler is a serious contender, but I would never bet against a former professional poker player like Ingoglia. He has the backing of Sen. Marco Rubio and a host of other key Republicans. Plus he's coming off an excellent election cycle for Florida Republicans.

Yet the Florida GOP under Ingoglia's chairmanship is Exhibit A for why the job doesn't mean much anymore.

Scott has almost nothing to do with the party because two years ago its grassroots members snubbed him and elected Ingoglia chairman over his preferred candidate.

GOP state senators also have little to do with the party. To them, Ingoglia is a representative in the lower chamber. They don't want to entrust their Florida Senate campaign funds to a party seen as controlled by the boss of Ingoglia's day job, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Other Republican statewide officeholders, including Rubio, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, rely on their own fundraising committees, not the state party. So do many legislators.

Once widely viewed as the most formidable state Republican Party in America, the RPOF has been so strapped for money in recent years that the Republican National Committee intervened to pay most of its employees.

Still, Florida Republicans had a strong 2016, delivering Florida's electoral votes to Trump and minimizing legislative and congressional losses after a redistricting process that had been expected to give Democrats an opportunity to gain ground.

At their core, state parties are merely vehicles through which contributions are funneled. Thanks to changes in campaign finance laws, many interest groups and politicians can create their own political committees to funnel political money.

"Political parties still matter," said former Florida GOP Executive Director David Johnson, noting that they still serve as a central point of contact and organizing for the GOP's grassroots. "But there's no question their importance has diminished because of campaign finance changes and some of the personalities involved."

Rivals Ingoglia, 46, and Ziegler, 33, agree that the party is at a crossroads. Given the growth of outside political committees like Scott's autonomous Let's Get to Work committee, which until recently had been barred from accepting unlimited donations from corporations or individuals, it's an open question whether the parties can reassert their influence.

"The rise of the political committees and these third party vehicles and moving money away from the parties have made the parties weaker," Ingoglia said.

Ziegler suggests Ingoglia's dual jobs — party chairman and Florida House member — exacerbates the problem because it fuels mistrust between key players in the party. Ziegler contends the governor and Republican state senators would be far more likely to coordinate with him, though he added Scott is not actively supporting him.

Democrats actually have a more integrated political apparatus, with the state House and Senate coordinated in the party since 2006. But they also have far greater challenges than Republicans. Their party's contest for chairman looks wide open and unpredictable because it's unclear who can even qualify to run.

Both parties have arcane rules that favor insiders, or those who must spend hours every month attending party meetings and endure the petty squabbling and infighting that are common.

"If I could change one thing about the party it would be to modernize and streamline the bylaws and governing structure to allow more people to enter the process," said outgoing Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant. "Reforming the bylaws would go a long way."

So far, the Democratic establishment choice appears to be Stephen Bittel, a real estate executive and top fundraiser. But it's unclear Bittel can get elected to a position in the Miami-Dade party to qualify him for state chairman.

Without a single state office or legislative chamber under Democratic control, their ability to raise money is severely crimped. It will be even more so with no Democrat in the White House.

"Now they won't even be able to offer perks like White House Christmas parties or Easter Egg hunts," lamented Democratic consultant Barry Edwards.

Tant oversaw two disappointing election cycles. First, Scott edged Charlie Crist for a second term. Then Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Given the GOP's overwhelming financial advantage, it would be unfair to blame Tant.

"Over the last 30 years the influence of parties has changed and that trend has only accelerated post-Citizens United," Tant said, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court decision opening the door to unlimited donations to political committees. "The next chair must be able to manage the party, get our message out to Floridians, and successfully raise enough money to compete in as many races as possible."

Better candidate recruitment is crucial.

"Give more people a chance to hear and see Democratic candidates, and whether they win or lose, it's good for us," said former Florida House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, who oversaw a political operation that picked up nine seats in 2006.

The days when party bosses controlled elections started to fade well before the rise of Bernie Sanders on the left and the tea party on the right that culminated with Trump's election. The looming 2018 election cycle in Florida features open races for governor and the entire Cabinet. It'll also pit Nelson against Scott in the U.S. Senate race.

We'll see whether Florida's Democratic and Republican parties are bit players or central ones.

 
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