To win in 2014, Florida Democrats must build on momentum

Published Dec. 1, 2012

Democrats just concluded their most successful Florida election cycle in more than three decades, not just delivering the state to President Barack Obama and re-electing Sen. Bill Nelson, but also picking up state House, state Senate and congressional seats.

But don't get cocky, Florida Democrats. In many respects, 2014 is more important for the vitality of the party than 2012.

As you prepare to elect a new state party chairman there's every reason to worry heading into the new election cycle, even against vulnerable Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

You won't have the massive Obama grassroots machine registering and turning out tens of thousands of new voters. Or a lavishly-funded TV campaign of Obama. And if past is prologue, Florida Republicans will have far stronger turnout than Democrats.

"Democrats have a long history of not coming out to vote in the non-presidential election years. We've seen that four times in a row,'' Alex Sink, the 2010 Democratic nominee for governor and potential 2014 candidate, said in a Political Connections interview on Bay News 9.

"The big question I believe for Democrats in the next election is how much of that energy and enthusiasm that we had during this presidential election can carry on to the 2014 races," Sink said. "I think it's probably going to be unfortunately very difficult."

On Jan. 26 in Orlando, Democratic party leaders will elect a new leader to succeed former state Sen. Rod Smith of Alachua, who took the helm of the state party after the GOP wave left Democrats holding just one of Florida's six statewide offices, Nelson's Senate seat.

Against that change of leadership, there is no more important question facing the party than whether it can take advantage of demographic changes in Florida and come even close to following the model set by the Obama campaign.

"We're at the threshold of a new Florida, and we've got to seize that opportunity," said Alan Clendenin, an air traffic controller and union organizer in Tampa running for party chairman against Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, a Miami-Dade businesswoman and former candidate for Congress and county commission.

"Demographics are on our side, the issues are on our side, the wind is at our back and we just can't screw it up,'' said Clendenin, 53, whose extensive "Rebrand, Rebuild, Recruit" plan for the state party includes decentralizing to create at least five "regional hubs," more emphasis on low-dollar fundraising and a "bottom-up" structure for grassroots organizing.

Keys to Obama winning Florida's 29 electoral votes were his strong performance among African-Americans, Hispanics and voters under 30 — overwhelmingly Democratic groups that tend to show up in much lower numbers during off-year elections.

"The question is how do we take what is the Obama coalition and translate that to a Democratic coalition that outlasts Obama?" said outgoing party chairman Smith.

Consider that in 2008 the Florida electorate was 42 percent Democrat and 39 percent Republican. Two years later, when Scott narrowly beat Sink, it was 45 percent Republican and 39 percent Democrat.

In non-presidential years, the Florida electorate is invariably, older, whiter and much more Republican.

"The success of 2012 was because of the tremendous amount of work that was done from the ground up and we need to continue that,'' said Taddeo-Goldstein, 45, who like Clendenin wants the party to continue working to improve vote-by-mail performance and aggressively reach out to the grassroots, especially minorities.

That's a lot easier said than done. The Obama campaign spent millions of dollars building a massive get-out-the vote machine that culminated in some 800 full-time staffers working out of more than 100 offices across Florida to help tens of thousands of volunteers push supporters to the polls.

In contrast, newly elected state Democratic chairmen for at least a decade in Florida have invariably had to focus on raising enough money just to keep the lights on. With no statewide office-holder in Tallahassee and a minority in the Legislature, special interests have little incentive to donate to the Democrats and Republicans have had an overwhelming financial advantage.

That makes 2014 potentially the most important election for Florida Democrats since the GOP ascendancy started in the 1990s. The prospect of winning the governor's mansion and picking up significantly more seats in the Florida House could turn around the Democrats' financial struggle.

The governor's divisiveness, Democrats hope, also could energize voters who often skip off-year elections.

"The governor's race in the state of Florida is going to be as hot as any presidential election," Clendenin predicts. "We have a governor who is historically unpopular and who from day one has worked against the interests of the majority of Floridians. ... Once we get that office, it's going to completely change the trajectory of the party."

Republicans dismiss talk about Scott's vulnerability.

"The 2014 general election is still an eternity away in modern politics," said state GOP spokesman Brian Burgess. "What we do know is that Rick Scott campaigned on fixing the economy and getting the state back on track, and that is ultimately what he will be judged on in 2014. It's clear that he's made significant progress and he's still got two years to go in his first term."

So far, only Clendenin and Taddeo-Goldstein have announced their candidacies for Florida Democratic chairman, though surprise last-minute candidates have emerged in the past. Party rules significantly limit the pool of contenders, with only county chairs and county state committeemen and committeewomen eligible.

Smith leaves the job with plenty of success to crow about, but then he took over in 2010 when it seemed hard to fathom Florida Democrats could sink any lower than they had. That won't be the case for the next chairman.

"We've got some momentum, but you can lose it just as fast as we got it,'' said Smith.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at