The Florida Democratic Party knows it needs Nan Rich.
And, perhaps, so does former Gov. Charlie Crist, who could face her in next year’s Democratic primary for governor if he decides to run against her.
A long-shot for governor, Rich’s background is an inverse of Crist’s: a committed liberal and a longtime Democrat, but a virtual unknown. Rich, a former Democratic leader in the state Senate, represented Weston until 2012.
If Crist runs, which looks likely, the Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat will have to face her in a 2014 primary where only registered Democrats can vote.
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Democrats say that dynamic is a good thing because any candidate who matches up against Republican Gov. Rick Scott will have to be battle-tested.
Even if Crist ultimately wins the Democratic primary — which early polls suggest is highly likely — it’ll force him to prove his party bonafides. Rich’s candidacy, at the least, will force a discussion about what it means to be a Democrat in Florida.
And Rich plans to do just that as she appeals to the grassroots of the party.
“They want a true Democrat,” Rich said. “They want someone who has consistent core values and principles. They don’t see that in Charlie Crist.”
Crist demurred when it came time to talk about his future plans or running against Rich.
“I’m not much of a prognosticator,” Crist said. “I don’t know yet if I’ll run. But I’m getting closer everyday to making that decision.”
How will the one-time self-described “Reagan Republican” and “Jeb Bush Republican” convince Democrats that he’s one of them? Only a campaign and time will tell.
“Charlie Crist has got a lot of explaining to do and Nan Rich is the one to make him do it,” said Screven Watson, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked for 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rod Smith, the recently retired party chairman.
“A primary is good for us,” Watson said. “Charlie has never been a Democrat. Nan always has. She has a message. And he needs time to deliver that message, to reintroduce himself to voters.”
Rich has the opposite problem: She needs to introduce herself to voters because she’s so unknown, unlike Crist, who has held three statewide offices and run for two others.
Paradoxically, Rich’s party is making it harder on her.
Rich is being denied a speaking slot at the June 15 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, an annual Florida Democratic Party gathering and fundraiser at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood.
Party leaders say they want to streamline the event, because in prior years they’ve had too many speakers. Now they’ll have only three: Congresswoman and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and featured speaker Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio.
“I think it’s inappropriate, given the amount of attention the governor’s race will draw,” Rich said. “I’ve been a candidate for a year. I’ve traveled the state and built a significant infrastructure and grassroots support. And I’m just asking for five minutes.”
But the party’s vice-chair and chair of its Miami-Dade chapter, Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, said the decision to limit speakers wasn’t aimed at Rich. It’s designed to keep donors from getting bored by too many speeches.
“From the party’s perspective, we’re glad there will probably be a primary and that Nan Rich is in it,” Taddeo-Goldstein said. “She’s definitely a hard-core Democrat, which is something we haven’t always had in the past. Having a choice is a wonderful thing.”
And some argue the controversy has helped Rich because it’s led to needed publicity.
The Republican Party of Florida’s chairman, Lenny Curry, enjoyed the Democratic trouble and broadcast a Twitter message to Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant on Wednesday: “Are big donors really more important than 5 min for @SenatorNanRich?”
Curry followed up by issuing a press release last week under the headline “Free Nan Rich.”
Fundraising can be a vicious cycle or virtuous circle for candidates, depending on whether they have money or not. More money means more advertising, which means better standing in the polls and therefore more money. Less money means the opposite.
Rich has struggled with donors. In the past year, she raised about $121,000 and spent about $26,000 and her political committee has raised an additional $136,000 and spent about $62,000.
Rich isn’t the only Democratic candidate. Unknowns Ryan Adam Lipner, of Plantation, and Jessica Lana Stewart, of Panama City Beach, have filed.
In a major public-opinion survey, taken in February by Democratic pollster David Beattie, Rich only garnered 1 percent of the vote in a theoretical Democratic primary. Crist would win 43 percent and the 2010 Democrat who lost to Scott, Alex Sink, came in a distant second with 14 percent of the vote.
Crist fared best with Scott in a match-up, 41-41 percent. Later surveys from Quinnipiac University and Public Policy Polling showed Crist beating Scott more easily, and PPP showed Rich losing to Scott.
Scott is widely disliked, the polls show, and is therefore seen as beatable. But he’s expected to have as much as $100 million to spend.
At least one Democrat, pollster Tom Eldon, said he was concerned about a contested primary because “it would give cover to stealth groups to attack Charlie Crist.”
And the Republican Party of Florida, far better-funded than the state Democratic Party, is already sending out frequent emails attacking Rich and Crist.
Crist got used to it once he left the party to become an independent in an unsuccessful race against Marco Rubio in the 2010 U.S. Senate race.
Crist last year served as a surrogate for Barack Obama during his 2012 reelection campaign in Florida, which the president narrowly won in the Sunshine State, 50-49 percent. Crist also spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
Though his poll numbers look good right now, Crist isn’t taking it for granted. Early polls made him look unbeatable in 2010.
“I’ve been here before,” Crist said, refusing to speak ill of Rich.
“I think very highly of Nan,” he said. “She’s a smart, competent, dedicated public servant. We both served together and I enjoyed working with her.”