High-stakes Senate rematch pits old foes

Sitting in a Fort Lauderdale diner booth with a jogging stroller parked nearby, Ellyn Bogdanoff grabs bites of chicken while struggling to maintain a grasp on her squirming 7-month-old granddaughter, Briana.

The former state senator from Fort Lauderdale recently filed papers to run again in Senate District 34, the seat encompassing coastal Palm Beach and Broward counties, two years after losing one of the most expensive and nastiest legislative races in recent history.

Bogdanoff, 54, was one of the few GOP incumbents the Republican-dominated Legislature drew out of their seats during the once-a-decade redistricting process in 2012. Bogdanoff then ran in the newly drawn District 34 but was defeated by Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs, another incumbent, losing by six percentage points to Sachs in a district where Democrats had about an eight-point voter registration edge.

The grudge match is widely considered the only Senate race that has a chance of flipping parties this year, but even Republicans are skeptical about Bogdanoff’s odds of winning.

Bogdanoff, a lawyer and consultant, insists she would not be in the race if she didn’t think she could win.

“I’m hopeful, and I feel better about this race than I did about 2012,” she said.

Part of Bogdanoff’s enthusiasm is related to the timing of the November midterm elections, in which Democratic voters typically turn out in smaller numbers than Republicans. Instead of having President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, former Republican Charlie Crist is likely to lead the Democratic ballot. Republicans are banking that lukewarm enthusiasm on the part of Democrats and independents will keep turnout low and boost chances for Gov. Rick Scott to get re-elected and for candidates like Bogdanoff to make GOP gains in the Legislature.

Sachs, who attended a Florida Democratic Party fundraiser featuring former President Bill Clinton in Hollywood last Saturday night, said she is “hitching my stars to political strategists on a national level” that will help her target voters.

“My campaign is going to be cutting-edge strategy,” Sachs, a lawyer who lives in Delray Beach, said. “I don’t worry about turnout. I worry about property insurance, education and the effects of climate change on our coastline.”

The rematch is “a different race, with different dynamics and different issues and really different candidates,” Sachs said.

“Last time, we had two incumbent senators in a district that combined Broward and Palm Beach. We ran and I won and she lost. Now, two years have passed. She’s not the incumbent. She has not been active. She has not stayed current. I have a record over the last two years,” Sachs said.

But, as with much of the machinations of the Capitol political realm, the Bogdanoff-Sachs race isn’t merely about a Republican and a Democrat vying for the same seat over which they bloodied each other two years ago. The contest is about another chase — who will become Senate president in 2016. Sen. Jack Latvala, a close personal friend of Bogdanoff who coaxed her into vying for the seat again, is in a neck-and-neck contest for the presidency against Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

Bogdanoff’s entrance into the race came after Republican Joseph Bensmihen qualified for the seat, posing the possibility of an expensive primary race. Bensmihen quickly dropped out, however.

Latvala, a Clearwater Republican whose political committee has collected more than $1 million, has pledged to help Bogdanoff raise money for a battle some insiders estimate could cost between $2.5 million and $5 million for each side. But Sen. Andy Gardiner, who will take over as president after the 2014 elections and has been raising money for Senate races for two years, has decided to keep his cash on ice in the District 34 match, at least until later in the election season, according to sources close to Gardiner and Bogdanoff. Gardiner, R-Orlando, may be prepared to unfold his wallet if Bogdanoff shows she can get within reach of Sachs in late September or October, they said. But for now, Gardiner is unwilling to risk party resources on a seat that seems to him to be a longshot.

In an interview with The News Service of Florida last week, Sachs accused Bogdanoff of essentially being a Latvala pawn.

“Sen. Latvala has a personal interest in the outcome of this race. He came back to be president. Whatever he can do to achieve that end, he will,” said Sachs. “I am a voice for the people in the district, not a vote for any particular person to become Senate president.”

Bogdanoff acknowledges she’s in Latvala’s corner but said that’s not her reason for running. She “absolutely loves public policy” and believes “it’s way cooler to be on the inside” to shape public policy.

“Am I a vote for him? Well, yeah. He’s my friend. Whether he wins or loses, he’s got me as a friend and he’s got me as a loyal supporter of whatever he aspires to do because he has been a loyal supporter of what I aspire to do. That’s what friends do,” she said. “It’s very rare in this process and, when you find it, you don’t let it go.”