LAKE BUENA VISTA — Florida Democrats are gathered this weekend to kick off a 2014 campaign season in which they hope an unpopular Republican governor, Rick Scott, and damage to the Republican Party’s image from the government shutdown will boost them to greater power in state government.
Working the crowd of some 1,500 Democrats at a Disney resort for the party’s pre-election year conference, and getting the rock star treatment, is the all-but-declared candidate to take on Scott, former governor and former Republican Charlie Crist.
Despite the Democrats’ ebullience, however, the road ahead is not entirely clear.
Not all of them are fully convinced that Crist should be their champion against Scott.
While Crist worked the crowd, so did former Democratic state Sen. Nan Rich, “a Democrat’s Democrat” in the words of one supporter. Emphasizing her long credentials as a fighter for the party’s causes while Crist was a Republican, she is drawing at least some support.
Republicans are showing determination to fight for Scott.
State GOP Chairman Lenny Curry and state party staffers came to the Disney hotel where the Democrats are holding their event to blast back at the criticism of Scott and, particularly, to blast Crist.
Curry cited reservations about Crist among Democrats — particularly liberals and women, those party activists most likely to back Rich — saying they “agree with us about Crist.”
Meanwhile, in comments to reporters, the state’s senior elected Democratic officeholder, Bill Nelson, once again declined to rule out entering the governor’s race if he feels it is needed to ensure Scott’s defeat, hinting he is willing to consider it — perhaps if neither Rich nor Crist seems able to beat Scott.
Nelson said he is continuing to hear pleas from Democrats that he should run.
He said he is satisfied that Crist’s conversion to the party is genuine and sincere. But asked whether he is satisfied with Crist and Rich as the two choices in a Democratic primary, he didn’t answer directly, instead responding: “The qualifying period (when candidates may file) is June 16 to June 20.”
Asked whether there was a chance he would run, he said: “I have said I have no plans to run for governor and I have no intention of running for governor, but I will say … the state’s going into a ditch. The state’s going in the wrong direction.”
Comments by Nelson and national Democratic Party Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz at Saturday night’s conference dinner also strongly suggested Alex Sink of Tampa will run for the Pinellas County House seat vacated by the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young, and that national Democrats want the current Democratic candidate, Jessica Ehrlich, to drop out.
Sink has said she is considering running, and friends say off the record they expect her to do so.
In Nelson’s speech at the dinner, he praised Sink’s late husband Bill McBride, who during the dinner was honored with a posthumous award for service, adding that McBride “will bequeath to us the next congresswoman from the 13th Congressional District” — language backers normally use to show support for a declared candidate.
Asked about Nelson’s comment, Sink called it “rousing encouragement.” Asked if it was more than just encouragement, she said, jokingly, “You heard him say it.”
Meanwhile, Ehrlich, who ran against Young in 2012 and began another campaign six months ago, sought to boost her candidacy at the conference, including speaking at a lunch for the delegates Saturday.
But in an interview afterward, she declined to say firmly that she will stay in the race in a primary against Sink, if Sink decides to run.
“I’m running for Congress,” she said when asked if she’ll stay in the race against Sink. “I wasn’t afraid to run against Bill Young and stand up to the establishment.” Pressed for a direct answer, she said, “I’m focused on my campaign.”
Wasserman-Schultz snubbed Ehrlich in a speech to the conference delegates at the dinner. After effusively praising other Democratic candidates for contested House seats, she declined to mention Ehrlich in comments about the 13th district seat, saying only “With your help we will elect a Democrat to Florida’s congressional district in Pinellas County.”
The most talked about person at the conference was not a Democrat, but a Republican: Scott.
“Running against the least-liked governor in America has some advantages,” Rich told delegates at the dinner. “No one has done a better job than Rick Scott convincing Floridians that we need a Democrat to lead Florida again.”
The shutdown also provide red meat podium rhetoric.
“We’ve just come off in Washington one of the worst examples of how to govern that I’ve witnessed in my entire career,” said Wasserman-Schultz in a news conference. “If you like the Marco Rubio-Ted Cruz brand of shutdown politics, holding the economy hostage and refusing to pay our bills, all in the name of denying millions of people access to quality affordable health care, then let’s go ahead and re-elect Rick Scott.”
But there are also questions about whether the problems at the federal level will affect the prospects for Republicans in Florida in an off-year election, with no presidential race on the ballot — the kind of election in which Democratic voter turnout traditionally slips.
Numerous national polls have shown people mainly blame Republicans for the financial crisis, but the Democrats’ image also has been affected.
“I don’t think they know how the problems at the national level will affect Florida,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. “It could affect both parties.”
Referring to allegations by Republicans including Scott and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio that Democrats and President Obama are responsible for the shutdown, MacManus said: “Floridians will hear two drastically different views on what’s happening in Washington.”