Hillary Clinton staying away from Florida for now, but supporters get rolling

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a roundtable discussion with members of the small business community at Capital City Fruit on April 15 in Norwalk, Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a roundtable discussion with members of the small business community at Capital City Fruit on April 15 in Norwalk, Iowa. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Published Apr. 20, 2015

Florida Democrats are ready for Hillary, even if Hillary Clinton is not yet ready for them.

"In my 35 years in politics, I've never seen anything like it. Every day my email box is filled, people asking, 'How do I get involved, how do I help?' " said Alan Clendenin of Tampa, vice chairman of the Florida Democratic Party and leader of Florida's "Ready for Hillary" committee, which has spent more than a year raising money and signing up volunteers.

The Clinton team is in no rush to start organizing and campaigning in America's biggest swing state, even though Barack Obama's re-election campaign started at this point four years ago. But Clinton supporters are aggressively raising money and nearly unanimous that she can win the state even if Republicans nominate Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.

"Florida is in play for Hillary no matter who the general election candidate is for Republicans. And if Hillary wins Florida, that's it," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said.

Democrats understand that Republicans can't win the White House without Florida's 29 electoral votes, so Clinton will fight hard to force Republicans to spend considerable energy and money here. The Republican National Committee has already launched an online ad against Clinton in Florida, playing off the controversy over her use of a private email account at the State Department.

"I'm not naive. Jeb or Marco on the ticket would be a much bigger challenge for Hillary than a Scott Walker or Chris Christie, but I don't think it's a challenge we can't overcome," said Steve Schale, a Tallahassee lobbyist and Democratic strategist who ran Obama's 2008 Florida campaign.

Nelson, who personally spoke with Clinton to urge her to get in the race sooner rather than later, said he already has helped raise money for the Ready for Hillary group, and he will be doing "lots" of fundraisers for her as an official candidate.

The Clinton campaign has a southeastern regional finance director, Jon Adrabi, and a Florida finance director, Greg Goddard, working out of Miami. Veteran Democratic fundraisers say they are focused on raising individual contributions up to $2,700 for her primary campaign that so far looks unlikely to include a strong Democratic challenger.

Ira Leesfield, a Miami personal injury lawyer who has raised money for the Clintons since 1992, said the campaign has already reached out to him and he has begun reaching out to friends in Florida through email, Facebook and other social media.

"There's a lot of people calling to say, 'Ira, I've been waiting for this, can I send you a contribution?' Some of them are $20 and some are the max of $2,700."

He said it would be a while before Clinton starts attending fundraising events in the state but added he and others have already begun. In Tampa, Democrats are organizing a fundraising reception for the Clinton campaign — sans Clinton — at the home of Pat Frank within the next 10 days.

Mindful of what went wrong with her campaign in 2008, the Clinton team wants to avoid looking presumptuous and signaling that she's a lock as the Democratic nominee. So the campaign is concentrating on the early-voting primary and caucus states such as New Hampshire and Iowa.

Even if a serious primary challenger emerges, Florida's primary is set for March 16, after nearly 20 other states have voted.

"Hillary Clinton is focused on working hard to earn every vote, run hard in early primary and caucus states and not take anything for granted," said Tyrone Gayle, a campaign spokesman. "She looks forward to talking to Florida voters in the months to come and competing in the Florida primary."

The campaign held a recent conference call with key donors and Democrats from across the country, including Florida, and stressed an emphasis on early-primary states. The point is to show Clinton does not feel she is entitled to the nomination.

But even as the candidate headed to Iowa, plans were under way to begin organizing nationally. In the next month grass roots trainers will be dispatched to Florida and other states. "We would love to have you involved," Marlon Marshall, a Clinton 2008 veteran who will head up her state strategy, said on the call.

Normally anxious Florida Democrats say Clinton's timing makes sense.

"To start putting staff in states that aren't early states could send the wrong message to those early states," said Ashley Walker, who ran Obama's Florida 2012 re-election campaign that kicked off in April 2011 and helped run the 2008 Obama campaign in Florida that kicked off in June 2008.

"Florida Democrats are extremely excited about her candidacy so everyone is eager to get the campaign going, but there's a calendar to this process so I don't think it is a detriment to her campaign that they don't have an office here yet," Walker said.

"There is no rush here in Florida for a presidential campaign," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. "We now have a mid-March 2016 primary, and we typically start preparing for the general election in the late summer and early fall of this year, just like we did in 2011."

Much of the early work of a major campaign involves developing relationships, introducing the candidate and campaign to party activists, elected leaders and key voter constituencies. Unlike Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, or Obama in 2008, however, Bill and Hillary Clinton are well known to Florida Democratic activists.

Democratic polls show that no prominent politician in Florida today is as popular as former President Clinton.

"The Clinton operation is uniquely prepared to ramp up quicker than your typical operation," Schale said. "The Clintons have a generation of relationships in Florida. It's not like they've got to go out there and introduce themselves."

Clendenin noted that the Ready for Hillary group has already created a campaign infrastructure, a turn-key operation handed to the Clinton campaign.

"I click a button and I contact 38,000 people in Florida. All that infrastructure in Florida is ready and waiting for her," Clendenin said.

Since 1992, when George H.W. Bush beat Bill Clinton in Florida by 1.9 percentage points, Republican presidential candidates have won the state twice (George W. Bush in 2004, and the contested and virtually tied election of 2000) and Democrats three times (Clinton in 1996, and Obama in 2008 and 2012).

Democratic campaign professionals see Hillary Clinton as likely stronger than Obama with white Florida voters, women, Jewish voters and seniors. Before long, they expect, Florida will be seeing a lot of the former Secretary of State and her campaign team.

"These elections are won in the states. We're not going to win them from a headquarters in New York," Robby Mook, Clinton's campaign manager, said on the conference call with party activists and donors. "We're going to win them on the ground and that's why we want to work very closely with all of you."

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes. Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.