Florida Democrats’ best candidate for governor right now isn’t a candidate and wasn’t always one of them.
And party leaders caused a stir by snubbing a longtime candidate and party stalwart.
But when the elites of the Florida Democratic Party met Saturday for their annual fund-raising gala, they suggested none of that was really a big problem for one big reason: Rick Scott.
The unpopular Republican governor looks like an easy target for an incumbent.
“Whoever the Democratic nominee is will beat Rick Scott,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. “We will win the governor’s mansion next November. There’s not any question.”
Even before the Jefferson-Jackson dinner began, Florida Democratic Party leaders said it was a success, bringing in a record $850,000.
But the fundraiser came at a cost for Nan Rich, a former Democratic state senate leader from Weston who was blocked from speaking because they wanted to limit the program, which in past years had gone on for hours.
One Broward activist carried a sign saying “Let Nan Rich Speak.” He was removed by security at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa.
Rich attended the Jefferson-Jackson dinner nonetheless. On her website, Rich posted the speech she would have given. It bashed Republicans and Scott for their policies on education, healthcare and elections.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican turned independent turned recent Democrat, also attended Saturday’s event along with the Democrat who narrowly lost to Gov. Scott in 2010, Alex Sink.
In a written statement, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Lenny Curry, jeered at the Democrats’ choices.
“Florida Democrats,” Curry said, “have to choose between a former Governor who oversaw the second highest jump in unemployment in the nation, an extreme liberal former State Senator who doesn’t see a tax hike she doesn’t like, or a former CFO who’s already lost to Governor Scott.”
Curry also pointed out that Florida has the nation’s second largest drop in unemployment under Scott, businesses such as retail giant Amazon are expanding here and that schools are highly ranked.
Said Crist: “I'm not going to take credit for the global economic meltdown and so I think he shouldn't take credit for the jobs that are coming in thanks to President Obama."
Still, Scott’s poll numbers concern Republican leaders.
The most recent public polls, released in March, indicate Crist would soundly beat him and that Scott is viewed far less favorably than favorably. One survey, from Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed that Scott would lose to Crist by 12 percentage points and to Sink by 6 points, but that he’d beat Rich by 6 percentage points.
Unlike Scott, Sink or Crist, Rich has never run for statewide office and, as a result, is unknown to a large percentage of the electorate.
She planned to address that issue in the speech she never gave on Saturday night, pointing out that former Democratic Florida governors Reubin Askew, Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles were little-known, too.
“All three of those candidates faced better financed and better-known “front runners” when they ran. They were the dark horses — the long shots,” she wrote in her speech. “But they won.”
Some liberal Democrats are displeased with the party’s treatment of Rich as well as the presence of Crist, who was roundly bashed at the party’s 2009 Jefferson Jackson dinner when he was a Republican.
One gun-control group on Friday posted a minute-long web video calling Crist “Chicken Charlie” for his recent decision to embrace some restrictions on firearms. When he was a Republican, for instance, Crist had a top pro-gun rating from the National Rifle Association, which plans to back Scott this year.
Crist is expected to announce whether he’ll run by the end of summer. He was introduced to Democrats by Dan Gelber, a party elder and former state senator from Miami Beach.
Crist is also well-liked by remnants of President Obama’s 2012 campaign, which the former governor aided last year. Crist also spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
That event was keynoted by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who also gave the main address Saturday night after Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Bill Nelson spoke.
Wasserman Schultz, who represents Broward and Miami-Dade counties, gave Castro a Miami Heat jersey. Castro promptly gave her one from the San Antonio Spurs.
Although the night was focused on bashing Scott and praising Democratic values and wins in 2012, the buzz that Crist generated was undeniable.
When asked if he welcomed Crist to the Democratic Party, Nelson said it was “wonderful. I think there ought to be more Republicans who ought to switch.”