FORT LAUDERDALE A record number of Florida Democrats, contributing a record amount of money, converged on Hollywood this weekend for a pep rally for the 2014 election, all with a laser focus on the governor's office and Gov. Rick Scott.
They smell blood in the water as they prepare to take on Scott, considered by some pundits the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the nation.
Even as they unified around that cause, the party's fundraising event was plagued by petty infighting.
A few Democratic state House members griped about the performance of state Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg in his role as the incoming House Democratic leader, although a rumored move to oust him from that post didn't materialize.
Some Democrats fussed over party Chair Allison Tant's decision not to allow former state Sen. Nan Rich, the only prominent declared candidate for governor, to speak at the event. Tant denies the move had anything to do with Rich's liberal ideology or Tant's own preferences in the governor's race, and merely was an attempt to keep the program reasonably short and not “a candidate's forum.”
Rich, who said she had sought “just five minutes” on the podium, has gained extensive publicity from the denial, partly because state Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry is using it to criticize Democrats.
“There have been a lot of words said about me and this event in the last few weeks,” Rich told a meeting of the state House caucus Saturday afternoon. “We can have disagreements about lots of things, but in the end we are going to be a unified party to defeat Rick Scott.”
Some Democrats from the party's liberal side, meanwhile, sniped at Crist. A small knot of gun control advocates protested his history of pro-gun rights stances outside the beach resort where the dinner was held.
And there was pervasive buzz about whether Sen. Bill Nelson, the state's senior elected Democrat, will enter the race for governor.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston recounted Nelson's moves in his political career from elective offices in Tallahassee, then Washington, then back to Tallahassee and then back to Washington again.
“There seems to be a pattern here,” she told the crowd at the dinner. “Hmmm. Just an observation.”
Nelson, for his part, repeated his qualified denial – “I have no plans to run for governor. I have no intent to run for governor” – without ending the speculation by saying that he will not run for governor.
Crist and the other most likely candidate, Alex Sink of Tampa, both attended the event, currying relationships with the party activists who will influence the nomination.
In an interview, Sink emphasized her status as a long-time Democrat, an implied comparison to Crist.
The Democrats exulted over the their win in November, when they delivered the state for President Barack Obama, gained five seats in the state House, two in the state Senate and four in the state congressional delegation.
Tant said her party's mood is “outstanding,” citing the $850,000 she said the event raised, and the 1,300 attendees – both records, she said.
Democrats have been a minority party in state government since 1998, with minorities in both houses of the state Legislature and the state Cabinet, as well as being frozen out of the governor's office. That lack of influence limits their ability to recruit candidates and to raise money.
With district maps drawn by the GOP Legislature to maximize its party's results, there's no realistic chance for Democrats to win a legislative majority in 2014. Their best shot at regaining influence is to unseat Scott.
“The state has been ridiculously gerrymandered,” said state party Vice Chairman Alan Clendenin of Tampa. “Recovering from that will take several election cycles, but this governor's race will be a significant step forward.”
In a Quinnipiac University poll in March, only 32 percent of respondents said Scott deserved a second term, and more disapproved of his performance in office than approved it, by 49-36 percent.
At the weekend gathering, Democrats said their forces are energized by issues Scott has generated: cuts to public education, his refusal of a federal grant for high-speed rail, and his veto of a bill passed nearly unanimously by the Legislature that would have allowed driver's licenses for children brought to this country by illegal immigrant parents.
But they face some major disadvantages in 2014, beyond the unsettled field of primary candidates. One is that Scott has signaled he plans to spend $100 million on his re-election.
“One of my biggest fears is people taking (Scott's defeat) for granted,” said Clendenin.
Another is voter drop-off in an off-year election.
Presidential races drive voter turnout among Democratic constituencies – minorities and young people.
But non-presidential years see lower turnout more dominated by older, white, more affluent voters – meaning Republicans.
In 2012, for example, 72 percent of the state's voters cast ballots, delivering Florida for Obama. Of those, 13 percent were black, 17 percent Hispanic, and 16 percent age 18-29.
By contrast, in 2010, when Sink unexpectedly lost to Scott, only 49 percent of the voters turned out, with lower percentages of black, Hispanic and young voters.
If Scott wins again, Clendenin noted, there will be no incumbent governor in the 2018 election, and the Democrats are likely to face a stronger Republican candidate than Scott.
The criticism of Rouson occurred during the Democrats' state House caucus meeting.
Rep. Mike Clelland of Crestview accused Rouson of alienating Democratic constituencies including the teacher's union and trial lawyers; Rep. Ricardo Rangel of Kissimmee questioned Rouson's decisions on hiring staff for the party's House campaign committee.
Rouson denied the criticisms, saying they're a product of inexperience – Rangel and Clelland both were elected in 2012.