Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo: Florida Democratic Party more joke than juggernaut

With a 500,000 edge in registered voters and a victory by President Barack Obama’s well-organized campaign in the state, the Florida Democratic Party had all the makings of a possible political juggernaut at the start of the year.

Last week, however, it looked like a joke.

The party’s Florida Chief Financial Officer candidate, Allie Braswell, withdrew Monday just days after announcing his bid. Braswell quit after Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union reported he had a few bankruptcies in his past — a damaging bit of history for someone running to manage the finances of the fourth most-populous state in the nation.

“The bright spotlight of a statewide campaign has cast the ups and downs of my life into harsh relief, and I now know that this campaign is not the way I was meant to serve my community,” Braswell said in a written statement.

“Running statewide is a daunting challenge for any candidate,” he said, “as a political outsider, I have now learned that I underestimated how my campaign would affect those I care about most.”

Aside from highlighting the tactical ball-dropping by the Florida Democratic Party (didn’t they vet him or prepare him for all of this?), Braswell’s candidacy underscores Democrats’ troubles more broadly.

The same goes for Thaddeus Hamilton, who got 2 percent of the vote running for Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner in 2010 as an independent. He is now running for the same spot as a Democrat.

The fact that the party has to rely on two political novices to run for a Florida Cabinet seat is a leading indicator of the vicious cycle of missed opportunities that Democrats have spun in for years.

There are now four Democrats vying to beat Gov. Rick Scott: former state Sen. Nan Rich, Ryan Adam Lipner, Marcelle Martelly, and Jessica Lana Stewart. Only Rich has political experience in Tallahassee, but she’s such an unknown that polls show the unpopular incumbent would still likely win.

The party’s best gubernatorial hope, polls indicate: Former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat who might run. That’s right, Democrats’ best candidate used to be in the GOP.

Democrats’ next-best hope: former state CFO Alex Sink, who narrowly lost to Scott in a 2010 election many thought she should have won.

The party’s chairwoman, Allison Tant, has said her party is actively recruiting to make sure that it has candidates in every race. But Braswell’s case shows that just having a candidate can be more trouble than it’s worth.

And it’s not easy work for Democrats anyway. Prospective candidates have many reasons to stay away:

Money: Controlling no statewide seats based in Tallahassee and barely a third of the Legislature, Democrats have relatively little clout to squeeze contributions from the special interests who dominate the state Capitol and fund campaigns. But if the Democrats win the governor’s mansion — a good possibility with Crist or Sink — it could help slowly turn the red Republican tide that has flooded the Capitol since the mid-1990s.

Flakey voters: The party’s voters can’t be trusted to show up for mid-term, gubernatorial elections. The last Democrat elected governor was Lawton Chiles, in 1994. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Sink in 2006 were the only recent Democrats to win in a mid-term year when the GOP started to fall apart nationally. Compare that to presidential elections. Disregarding the disputed 2000 White House race, Republican presidential candidates have clearly won Florida just twice in two decades: 2004 and 1992.

Loyalty: Democratic strategist Steve Schale points out that his party punishes those who lose in a race. Hence, it seems, mid-terms more often than not showcase new Democrats running to the same-old slaughter. Compare that to the GOP, which often rewards repeat candidates with eventual wins. Crist, for instance, was one of them.

History: When you run for an office, you go back and look at the last election. And it’s a turnoff for a Democratic candidate because 2010 was a blood-red Republican year. Except for Scott, each Republican holding a Cabinet seat won by double-digit margins, with CFO Jeff Atwater besting the Democrat by an astonishing 18.4 percentage points (this is the guy Braswell was going to beat?).

Incumbency: It’s always tough to beat an incumbent. And all statewide seats are held by Republicans.

Obama’s cult of personality: For all the talk of the Obama campaign’s rigorous organization, data targeting and turn-out operations, it looks like the campaign was all about Obama. That was the story in 2010, when Obama and his team didn't do enough as Republicans roared and Democrats scurried; 2014 could be a repeat.

On that last point, Florida Democrats have privately said that they know they can’t count on Team Obama, which isn’t just greedy about hoarding its data — it’s arrogant to boot.

But arrogance isn’t a disqualifier in politics. Just look at the Republican Party of Florida.

At the beginning of the year, when things were looking grim for Republicans, RPOF Chairman Lenny Curry called on everyone in Florida politics to have a more humble, civil discourse.

Once Democrats looked helpless, however, the Republican Party started launching personal attacks on the Democrat’s chairwoman by calling her comments a “Tant Rant.” Last week, when Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz criticized Scott for undermining Obamacare, RPOF resorted to calling her a “dunce.”

Way to elevate the dialogue, RPOF.

It’s clearly hypocritical with a touch of meanness. All Democrats had to do is point out what Curry said then and what the party is saying now.

Instead, the Florida Democratic Party said the attacks were sexist. That’s a stretch at best.

And it’s a puzzling missed opportunity.

But at least for the Florida Democrats, it’s what we’ve come to expect.