Democrats get little attention in primary race for Attorney General

Democratic candidates George Sheldon and Perry Thurston contend Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi is vulnerable in the November election because she has been a national lightning rod.

But the Aug. 26 primary between Sheldon, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, and Thurston, the state House minority leader, is drawing little attention from voters and relatively little money from contributors.

“This race has just gotten very, very little regular coverage in local news, which means it’s just not on most people’s radar screens,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “Every governor’s poll that comes out, that is the focal point.”

Without the financial backing enjoyed by Bondi, neither of the Democratic campaigns has been able to reach voters through waves of TV ads or wide-ranging direct mail.

Instead, Sheldon and Thurston have gone the lower-cost route, concentrating on social media such as Facebook and Twitter to get out their views.

“There is no noise in terms of the two of us, because we’re both focused on Bondi,” Thurston, of Fort Lauderdale, said. “We sort of hurt each other’s fundraising ability. Democrats don’t want to get involved. As soon as this is over you’ll see all the members come together.”

Sheldon said Cabinet races are typically lower in visibility, “particularly when you have a governor’s race like this governor’s race.”

“I’m spending a lot of time in small fundraisers, at small meet-and-greets, talking to Democratic clubs,” Sheldon said. “You have to get past the primary before you’ll get the focus the (attorney general’s) race … deserves.”

Among the factors keeping Democrats from getting involved in the contest could be a racial dimension. Thurston is African-American. Sheldon is white.

“Many Democrats do not want to take sides in this race, they like both candidates, and they recognize the importance of the African-American vote,” MacManus said.

Thurston and Sheldon dismissed such speculation as “inside baseball” for pundits.

“I’m not running to be only an African-American candidate or an African-American AG. I am running to be attorney general for all Floridians,” Thurston said. “Middle-class Floridians who get up and go to work every day and don’t feel that any of the people who run Tallahassee are looking out for them. I want to be their voice.”

Sheldon said politicos fail when they lump African-American voters into single voting blocs.

“I think both with African-American voters as with other voters, there really is a focus on what someone brings to the table,” Sheldon said.

The Florida Democratic Party didn’t answer questions regarding the contest.

Those who closely follow Florida politics say Sheldon has the edge in the primary simply because he’s better known.

Sheldon served in the House from 1974 to1982, was a top assistant to former Attorney General Bob Butterworth and was appointed secretary of the Department of Children and Families by former Gov. Charlie Crist. Sheldon later worked in the Obama administration.

Thurston, an attorney who worked in the Broward County Public Defender’s Office, has been a state representative since 2006, the past two years as the House minority leader.

But no one really knows where the primary is headed.

Voters — based on the scant available polling that has been done on the race — remain lukewarm to Bondi. Still, she has maintained leads when matched head-to-head against Thurston and Sheldon.

Thurston and Sheldon hope to score points by highlighting that Bondi last year got Gov. Rick Scott to delay an execution that was scheduled on the same date as her campaign kick-off party. They also point to issues such as her legal defense of Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage and her fight against the federal Affordable Care Act.

“She has gotten involved in every kind of tea party issue out there,” Sheldon said. “Where has she been on utility rate increases at a time when utility consumption is down 12 percent in the state? I give her credit for using her bully pulpit to identify the hazards of human trafficking and pill mills, but there is more to the AG than that.”

However, some of the things Sheldon and Thurston see as Bondi’s weaknesses are considered positives among conservative voters. Also, she is expected to be able to highlight her work with lawmakers to crack down on human trafficking, synthetic drugs and prescription-drug pill mills.

The Democratic primary recently has drawn some controversy as Thurston supporters questioned Sheldon’s standing to run for the office.

Among the few requirements in the Florida Constitution for those running to be attorney general is to have lived in Florida the preceding seven years.

The question arose because Sheldon, in signing an exemption after his Florida Bar license lapsed, wrote that he had been living in Washington D.C. while working for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“It’s hard to say it’s going to have any impact when people don’t know much about the race itself,” MacManus said. “I dare say the percentage of voters who know about this residency issue is miniscule.”

Money and the race for Florida Attorney General

Whichever Democratic candidate — former secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families or House Minority Leader Perry Thurston — emerges from the Aug. 26 primary will face problems trying to compete financially with Bondi.

Entering August, Bondi still had $1.6 million of the $1.8 million she had raised. Sheldon, meanwhile, had raised $315,120 but spent $283,185. Thurston was down to about $78,000 of the $179,255 he’d picked up.