TAMPA — Across Florida, Democrats are waiting — and waiting, and waiting — to see which candidate will carry their banner against Gov. Rick Scott in next year’s election.
Scott looks vulnerable, they contend.
Despite recent improvement in some polls, his approval ratings are tepid at best. In recent weeks, he’s weathered scandals — resignations under fire of his education Commissioner Tony Bennett, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll and Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins, plus national criticism of the state over the Trayvon Martin case and the “stand your ground” law.
So why aren’t big-name Democrats coming off the sidelines to challenge him?
One reason is a new law increasing campaign contributions limits.
As of Nov. 1, when the law takes effect, a candidate for governor, a state Cabinet office or Supreme Court seat will be allowed to collect $3,000 from each donor instead of just $500. For candidates in local and regional races, the limit goes to $1,000.
The $3,000 cap will make a big difference for a Democrat hoping to take on a governor who has let it be known he’ll spend up to $100 million on his re-election, and has publicly announced he intends to have $25 million by the beginning of 2014 and spend it on attack ads against his opponent.
Democrats have three potential big-name candidates waiting in the wings — former Gov. Charlie Crist, Sen. Bill Nelson and former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
Sources close to Crist who didn’t want to be named said the change in contribution limits is an issue in discussions with his inner circle about when he should announce.
Sink has said repeatedly she hasn’t made up her mind yet whether to run, and her closest associates, again speaking off the record, confirm that she is sincerely undecided — but also that the contributions limits are involved in her calculations.
Sink has said she’ll make up her mind by early September.
The only prominent Democrat who has actually declared is former state Sen. Nan Rich, who’s respected in the party as an advocate for public education, health care and women’s rights, but lacks a statewide name. Rich managed to raise only $39,000 during the second quarter of 2013, but says she’s building a network of grass-roots backers.
Democratic insiders say it would be simply inefficient to tap donors for a $500 contribution now, then go back and ask for another $2,500 after the new limits take effect.
“You’re doing double the work,” said prominent lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser Justin Day, who worked with Sink’s 2010 campaign. “I’d recommend to almost any candidate not to open an account until Nov. 1 or close to it.”
Day noted that Scott hasn’t yet opened an official campaign account. Instead, he’s raising millions for his independent political committee, Let’s Get to Work, which isn’t subject to the contribution limits and can still spend money in support of his candidacy.
Democrats aren’t waiting until they have a declared candidate to begin a campaign against Scott. Last week, they announced a digital ad campaign intended to tell voters about what party Chairman Allison Tant called Scott’s “real record, the one he won’t tell them about” and his “extreme agenda.”
Democrats hit controversies
The campaign is partly to capitalize on controversies hitting the Scott administration and partly to answer the recent uptick in his approval numbers.
“This is a response to the governor’s attempt to bring his numbers up. He’s gone on a full-time campaign now,” Tant said in a conference call with reporters.
She acknowledged it’s more difficult without a candidate to rally around.
“Of course it would help” to have a well-known candidate in the field, she said, “but we’re not having a problem in the absence of one. There is a lot of enthusiasm against Rick Scott.”
University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett, a political neutral, said there are a couple of reasons why a potential candidate might want to keep his powder dry for the time being.
A candidate would provide “someone to be the focus of party efforts to raise money and get people excited, a real person instead of just a generic,” he said.
But that candidate would immediately become the focus of Republican attacks, probably more intense than those the party is now launching against Crist, he said.
“As soon as a high-profile candidate announces, that person becomes the target, and also takes some of the focus off Scott,” he said. “Right now, things are looking pretty decent for Democrats even without a candidate.”