Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson criticized the billionaires funding television ad attacks against him in his re-election campaign, while other top Florida Democrats bashed Republican Gov. Rick Scott as they all gathered Saturday night for their annual Jefferson Jackson dinner in Hollywood.
“This is a time of extraordinary outside money coming into Florida to try to buy certain elections,” Nelson said at a press conference before the dinner “When this kind of money comes in to influence, and comes in from billionaires, it is obvious they are not interested in Florida — they are interested in their own particular agenda.”
Nelson, Florida’s only Democratic statewide office holder, is seeking a third term and faces what will be an expensive and contentious battle with the likely GOP nominee, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fort Myers). Although he is far behind in fundraising, Mack is getting a big boost from Super PACS.
American Crossroads, a political action committee overseen by conservative strategist Karl Rove, has reserved $6.2 million in air time to link Nelson to President Barack Obama’s agenda. Freedom PAC, a new super PAC supporting Mack and funded by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has $1 million.
Saturday’s event at the Westin Diplomat hotel gives Democrats a chance to do some cheerleading in advance of the Nov. 6 presidential, U.S. Senate and state legislative elections, and test the waters for potential Democratic challengers for Scott.
For Florida Democrats, Scott, who doesn’t face voters again until 2014, sounded like a bigger nemesis than Romney.
“The Republican Party has lost their way and have moved so far to the right that they have become the Tea Party,” said state party chairman Rod Smith. “We believe [Scott] has become a voice of the Republican Party of Florida. Apparently their presidential candidate must not agree: on 54 trips I don’t think they’ve gotten together. I’m assuming Gov. Romney thinks Tallahassee is a no-fly zone right now.”
Democratic State Sen. Nan Rich of Broward, who is running for the party’s gubernatorial nomination to run against Scott, criticized the governor’s statements about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on President Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
“We have a governor that is saying he is not going to implement what he calls optional components,” she said. “He includes in optional the [health] exchanges.” If the state won’t set up the exchange the federal government will do that for Florida, Rich said.
Under the health care law, by 2014 states must implement a health insurance exchange, a Web-based marketplace where people can shop for insurance, or defer to a federal program. States need to submit plans to the federal government that demonstrate their readiness to launch health exchanges by Nov. 16.
Scott says Florida will not begin implementing the federal health care law because he believes it is bad policy and too costly.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Weston), chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that “Scott and the Republican Legislature have pushed through some of the most draconian cuts we have seen” — citing K-12 education and cutting funding to rape counseling centers. She also criticized Romney for not releasing several years of tax returns.
Wasserman Schultz also capitalized on the latest dustup about Romney staying at Bain three years longer than he had previously said.
“There is still more about his time at Bain Capital that Mitt Romney doesn’t want voters to know about,” Wasserman Schultz said. “If voters can’t trust him to tell the truth about his own past … how on earth can we trust him to lead our country.”
The event was held in the state’s most Democratic county — Broward has nearly 570,000 registered Democrats. There is no question that Obama and Nelson will win Broward — the question is whether Broward can turnout large enough numbers to neutralize GOP votes in more conservative parts of the state to help the president and Nelson keep his seat.
There are about 450,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans statewide among the 11.3 million voters but that edge doesn’t guarantee Democrats’ success. Florida helped elect Obama in 2008 but the state also elected Republicans Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in 2010 — and Rubio remains a potential vice presidential pick for Mitt Romney.
Democrats will also have to appeal to the growing contingent of more than 2.7 million independent voters and Hispanics who comprise about 13 percent of the state’s voters.
The likely Nelson-Mack race is one of the most closely watched Senate contests nationally. Earlier this year Mack faced attacks from GOP rival George LeMieux stemming from his college days, a messy divorce and consultant work for Hooters. LeMieux dropped out all but assuring Mack an easy win in the scheduled Aug. 14 primary. His opponents are former Rep. Curt Weldon and military retireee and tree farmer Mike McCalister.
Mack has been repeatedly calling Nelson a “liberal” moving in “lockstep” with Obama. Nelson has tried to portray himself as a centrist including his support for extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone making less than $1 million a year (Obama proposes a cut for those earning less than $250,000).
The race between Nelson and Mack is close. A Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll released this week showed Nelson leading Mack 47-42. The poll found Barack Obama and Mitt Romney essentially tied with the president leading by one point: 46-45. Nelson said Saturday that he will campaign alongside Obama — he hopes to appear with the President in Orlando Friday.
Nelson finished June with about $11 million cash on hand while Mack had about $1.3 million however Super PACS could help level the field for Mack. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads recently said it would spend more than $6 million on TV ads to link Nelson to Obama. The keynote speaker was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic National Convention Committee Chairman.
Nelson was asked if he would campaign on his support for the Affordable Care Act despite a recent Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll that showed a majority of Floridians oppose it. Nelson called it the “best policy for this country” and told a story about how he responded to Floridians at a town hall meeting in northern Florida when he was asked to repeal the law.
“What part would you like me to repeal? Would you like me to repeal the part that allows you to keep your kid on your family’s policy until they are 26? … Repeal the part that says your insurance company can’t cancel you in the middle of treatment? …. Repeal the part that says an insurance company cannot deny you coverage because you have a pre-existing condition?”
Nelson said that the public perception of the law, recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, will change as the public learns more about the law.
Democrats are also hoping to unseat tea party favorite U.S. Rep. Allen West. He was elected in a Broward/Palm Beach district in 2010, but is now running in the newly formed District 18 along the Treasure Coast. Among of his latest controversial remarks about Obama: “He does not want you to have self-esteem of getting up and earning and having that title of American. He’d rather you be his slave.”
West is expected to defeat Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder in the Republican primary on Aug. 14.
His likely Democratic opponent, businessman Patrick Murphy, has been an impressive fundraiser in his first bid for office. He raised $1.8 million as of the end of March but West has raised more than quadruple that amount.
Murphy is facing two other opponents in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary: retired Miami Beach firefighter Jerry Lee Buechler, of Port St. Lucie, and businessman Jim Horn, of Palm City.