State Politics

Dems squabble, look inward after brutal losses

Charlie Crist thanks supporters, with his wife, Carole, during his concession speech after losing to Rick Scott, in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
Charlie Crist thanks supporters, with his wife, Carole, during his concession speech after losing to Rick Scott, in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. MCT

Demoralized after their brutal midterm election losses, Florida Democrats are once again battling each other and now face an even tougher challenge of rebuilding.

“It’s hard. It’s rotten. It’s depressing,” said Allison Tant, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, who promises to press ahead and finish her four-year term. “But I’m not going to walk away just because it’s gotten harder. I don’t have that in me.”

Democrats’ explanations are many: not enough money, not enough good candidates and an unfocused message, especially to independent voters.

Tant on Thursday announced a task force headed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to attack the party’s most glaring weakness: a failure to recruit capable and well-funded candidates for the Legislature, Congress and statewide offices.

But rather than unite, some Democrats are pointing fingers and seeking scapegoats.

Their target is state Rep. Mark Pafford, a soft-spoken lawmaker from West Palm Beach already chosen by his colleagues to lead the 38-member House Democratic caucus for the next two years. Humiliated by last week’s losses, some Democrats want to replace Pafford with Rep. Dwayne Taylor of Daytona Beach.

Tant is furious at what she calls a “circus” and is calling out Pafford’s critics as “bed-wetters” on the eve of a public vote Monday in Tallahassee.

“I’m pretty tired of this whole circular firing squad thing,” Tant said as she pounded her fist on a conference table in an interview with the Times/Herald. “I’m ready for the bed-wetting to stop.”

Gleeful Republicans are enjoying the Democrats’ latest episode of divisiveness.

“Talk about a fistfight in a phone booth,” said Republican strategist and lobbyist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, who has been on both sides of epic political battles. “When there’s just a handful of you, you need to stand back-to-back.”

For Florida Democrats, things can’t get much worse.

Convinced they had a vulnerable Gov. Rick Scott on the ropes, Democrats instead lost their fifth straight race for governor. Party strategists say that was largely a result of Scott having so much more money, including $12.8 million of his own in the home stretch to pay for TV ads attacking Charlie Crist.

But all three Republican incumbents for the statewide Cabinet offices crushed their weak Democratic challengers and five Democrats in the state House were ousted, giving Republicans an overwhelming 80-seat majority in the 120-member House, with two seats vacant.

The Democrats’ shining success was Gwen Graham, a first-time candidate who defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland in a 14-county congressional district that covers much of the Panhandle.

Amid widespread criticism over strategic failures, Tant says future pollsters and vendors will be hired through open competition. She also says Florida needs a Democratic think tank to shape policies to help working families and wants to know why it’s so hard to get rank-and-file voters to vote in off-year elections in South Florida.

Christian Ulvert of Miami, a House Democratic strategist, concluded that Hispanic voters were most offended by relentlessly negative TV ads, suggesting that is why Miami-Dade’s turnout was 10 points below the statewide average.

“The high level of negativity just shut them down,” Ulvert said.

Alan Clendenin of Tampa, the state party’s first vice chairman, called the election a “catastrophic failure” by Democrats. He said Republicans are much better at engaging voters between elections, while Democrats show up at election time.

“We can’t be the circus that comes to town, puts up a big tent, and then, when the election’s over, we strike the tent,” Clendenin said.

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, who won re-election as others around him lost, said Democrats don’t talk enough about pocketbook issues such as the rising costs of property insurance and energy, especially Duke Energy’s nuclear plant fee that he rode to a re-election victory.

“We should be the leaders on insurance reform,” Dudley said.

The decision by Florida Democrats to embrace the re-branded Crist, a former Republican and independent, gave the party a well-known candidate. But it also demonstrated as never before their lack of depth and inability to groom their own candidates from the ground up.

Steve Schale, a Crist strategist who worked on both of President Barack Obama’s successful Florida campaigns, directly attacked the conventional wisdom that Crist lost because of a lackluster Democratic turnout in South Florida.

He noted that in Miami-Dade and Broward combined, Crist got 77,000 more votes than Alex Sink did four years ago, while Scott’s vote total in the two counties was about the same.

The problem, Schale said, is that Scott and the Republicans had enough money to compete everywhere while Crist and the Democrats had to pick two or three battlegrounds and try to compete with Scott’s saturation TV campaign. That allowed Scott to run up his numbers along Interstate 10, a reliably Republican region from Pensacola to Jacksonville, areas where Crist couldn’t afford to even get ads on TV.

Crist raised about $45 million. Schale said he needed $60 million to win.

“All the things you want to do, you can’t do, when you’re being outspent 3-to-1 on TV,” Schale said. “We had to cut off our left arm and hope we didn’t bleed to death.”

Schale said Democrats have to find a way to neutralize the Republicans’ overwhelming fund-raising superiority in midterm elections.

“You can’t win elections being outspent the way we were,” Schale said. “This is reality.”

Party chairwoman Tant said the Democrats’ core mission won’t change: to speak up for people who have no voice.

“What I came here to do is stand up for people who are struggling,” she said.