Florida Democrat wants party to reach out to independents

Published Aug. 5, 2012

Florida's election schedule has never made much sense.

Candidates spend 18 months or so campaigning for their party nomination, courting hard-core activists at every partisan barbecue for primary elections that draw few voters. Then, often broke and politically wounded, nominees have just two months to make their case to the overall Florida electorate.

Voters unaffiliated with either major party are the fastest growing part of the electorate and usually decide Florida elections. Yet under Florida's closed primary system, independents have no say and are largely ignored until the very end of the campaign season.

Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, has an intriguing idea for his party: open Democratic primaries to independent voters. It would take merely an internal rule change by the party, he said, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled political parties have a "right of association" and can include whomever they wish in their nomination process.

Why do it? Democrats have a lousy track record turning out voters in nonpresidential years. If unaffiliated voters were included in the primary, it would force primary candidates to reach out to a big chunk of the electorate that is crucial in the general election.

"It would force us to engage early and meaningfully important voters who by definition are unaffiliated and in play,'' said Gelber, who ran for attorney general in 2010. He said the move could help the party in 2014.

Who else might it help? Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist is widely seen as a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2014. If he does run, Crist could have a tough time in a primary, given his history supporting Republican priorities. But Crist remains popular with independent voters.

Gelber insisted his proposal has nothing to do with any specific candidate or race.

"The diversity of nonaffiliated voters in Florida makes it impossible to divine who this would help," he said. "Charlie and (former gubernatorial candidate) Alex (Sink) could both argue it helps them, and any mayor who represents these voters could make the same argument."

Assessing Crist, Scott

The Florida Democratic Party used to have no problem criticizing Crist when he was a Republican, particularly for taking days away from Tallahassee. But check out Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the party, on Political Connections on Bay News 9 today to see how diplomatic he is about Crist.

"I keep waiting for him to show up at the office with his party switch card, but he just never shows up," he quipped, dodging a question about whether Crist would be welcomed by Democrats.

And would Crist be a strong Democratic candidate?

"He's won statewide before, so sure, he knows how to win in the state of Florida. But we've got a lot of great Democrats already," Arceneaux said.

There's little or no precedent for the popularity of a governor influencing a presidential election in that state, but Arceneaux said the party will do everything it can to exploit the low approval ratings of Gov. Rick Scott before the election.

"He's the most unpopular governor in the country. He lacks any political skills, and that's the Republicans saying that, not me. We're certainly going to make an issue of him. And we think the fact that people just don't like him, that'll help really define the Republican brand in Florida by Rick Scott," Arceneaux said. "If you don't like what Rick Scott's doing in Tallahassee, which we don't think people do, if you don't like the Republican governor, you're not going to like Mitt Romney."

Political Connections airs at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Ohio tops Florida

CNN's TV ad trackers are reporting how much time the Barack Obama campaign has reserved in key battleground states. Ohio actually tops Florida in planned TV spending, a reminder that losing Ohio would be more damaging to Obama than losing Florida. Here's the breakdown: Colorado: $7,025,120; Florida: $13,355,226; Iowa: $7,315,224; Nevada: $4,939,620; New Hampshire: $4,939,620; North Carolina: $7,647,844; Ohio: $19,533,433; Virginia: $11,582,494.

Campaign getting ugly

For much of the year, it looked like Democrat Bill Nelson would have far more money for his re-election than the Republican nominee. But spending by outside groups is likely to mean Nelson's campaign actually has significantly fewer resources than his Republican rivals. Assorted conservative organizations already have spent more than $9 million on TV ads attacking Nelson as a liberal.

Now Nelson is firing back — hard.

A new Nelson ad ridicules likely GOP nominee Connie Mack IV as a former Hooters employee with one of the worst attendance records in Congress, as well as a history of debts, liens and "barroom brawling.''

It's going to be an ugly campaign.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee responded to Nelson's ad by taking a shot at the senator's son.

"It is disappointing that 40-year politician Bill Nelson would use an event that took place in his opponent's personal life 20 years ago to distract from his own abysmal record," says NRSC executive director Rob Jesmer. "Such an attack is particularly surprising, considering that Nelson's own son was recently arrested for both disorderly intoxication and assaulting a police officer. Senator Nelson, perhaps more than most people, should recognize that his attempt to leverage a person's youthful mistakes for his own political advantage is shameful."

Alex Leary contributed. Follow Adam Smith on Twitter: @AdamSmithTimes.