State Politics

Florida Democrats rally for 2016 races, despite absence of Clinton, Sanders

U.S. Senate candidate Pam Keith, a North Palm Beach attorney, addresses the Florida Democratic state convention during the party dinner, Oct. 31, 2015.
U.S. Senate candidate Pam Keith, a North Palm Beach attorney, addresses the Florida Democratic state convention during the party dinner, Oct. 31, 2015. Florida Democratic Party

Given Florida’s status as a swing state in the 2016 elections, the absence of the Democratic Party’s two major presidential candidates didn’t go unnoticed during the state party’s annual convention this weekend at Walt Disney World.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were campaigning in other states and missed out on what Florida Democratic Party officials called a record-breaking gathering of the party faithful.

The 2,000 attendees left with mixed emotions. Energized, certainly — but also somewhat disappointed.

“You had some who really thought it would signal Florida’s importance” if Clinton and Sanders were to attend, said Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “Others are happy that people seem engaged even without their presence, and they’re willing to be patient until the general election.”

Officials at the Republican Party of Florida said the absence of Sanders and Clinton was a sign of the Democrats’ weakness. The state GOP plans to welcome 12 of the party’s 15 presidential contenders during its Sunshine Summit in a couple weeks.

“[Clinton’s] absence at this convention is a clear reflection of the lack of momentum and grassroots organization that Florida Democrats have going into 2016,” RPOF said in a statement.

Democrats know they have to mobilize both their base and moderate voters, if they’re going to have a chance at winning not only the presidency but also Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Both parties have a slate of candidates duking it out in the party primaries, hoping to put up the strongest candidate in a competitive race to replace Marco Rubio.

Everyone’s going to be looking at Florida; if we don’t win Florida, we probably don’t take back the Senate.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said of Florida’s U.S. Senate race in 2016.

Democratic candidate Patrick Murphy, a Jupiter congressman, picked up several major endorsements during the weekend that propelled his status as the Democratic establishment’s favorite in the race. In contrast, Orlando U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson is earning support from the progressive base of the party and grassroots donors.

The Florida Teamsters announced their support for Murphy on Friday, while three national Democrats joined Murphy in person on Saturday to throw their weight behind him.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank said Murphy has a better chance than Grayson at uniting independent voters, who will likely decide next year’s race.

They said Grayson — a progressive known for colorful soundbites — is too polarizing and could cost the Democratic Party a significant chance at reclaiming the majority in the U.S. Senate come 2017.

“You’ve got to have somebody that will stand their ground but find common ground and reassure independent voters that they are not extreme,” McCaskill said of Murphy. McCaskill speaks from experience; she faces a similar dynamic in Missouri, a heavily Republican state.

Well, Barney Frank is renowned for his sense of humor, and this is a good example of that.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, candidate for Florida’s open senate seat

They said Murphy’s ability to win a moderate congressional district in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast is an example of his middle-of-the-road appeal and his ability to win.

“Everyone’s going to be looking at Florida; if we don’t win Florida, we probably don’t take back the Senate,” Klobuchar said.

Frank — who, like Grayson, is a progressive — said Grayson sometimes offers extremist rhetoric, such as “demonizing” the institution of government rather than focusing his attack on bad policies.

“He gives into that temptation to play to people’s fears excessively,” Frank said. “Patrick Murphy ... does the job in the way it should be done: Push for specific improvement, but you don’t lean toward the excess.”

Grayson told the Herald/Times that McCaskill, Klobuchar and Frank need to “acquaint themselves better with the facts,” pointing to his showing in polls against Murphy and against Republicans.

“That campaign is going nowhere. Dead in the water, and I think they’re desperately trying to revive it,” Grayson said.

But, as a Herald/Times analysis of Grayson’s and Murphy’s campaign contributions found, many other U.S. senators are signaling their preference of Murphy over Grayson, too. Two-thirds of Democrats in the U.S. Senate have given campaign contributions to Murphy. None had given to Grayson, as of Sept. 30.

The endorsement by Frank — perhaps best known for passing sweeping financial reforms — came at a time when Grayson’s campaign had been trying to attack Murphy for receiving donations from Wall Street interests: $33,000 in the third quarter alone, by the Grayson campaign’s tally.

“Well, Barney Frank is renowned for his sense of humor, and this is a good example of that,” Grayson said.

Grayson used the Democratic gathering to further contrast himself with Murphy, who he continues to criticize for being a former Republican. Grayson campaign volunteers handed out fake checks to delegates, highlighting a $2,300 donation Murphy gave Mitt Romney in 2007.

Murphy reiterated that he had followed his Republican parents’ lead as a young adult but switched to the Democratic Party after he saw how Republicans handled the Iraq War and the Gulf oil spill.

Meanwhile, North Palm Beach attorney Pam Keith, the other Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, lacks the name recognition and fundraising resources of her opponents, but she managed to draw a more enthusiastic reaction than either of them Saturday night during the party’s keynote dinner.

$675,000 How much Florida Democrats said they raised at state convention

While both Grayson and Murphy gave routine stump speeches and attracted applause at predictable times, Keith struck a more-animated tone, offering criticism of both major parties in a message that resonated with the crowd.

“We do ourselves no favors when we ignore” voters who register as “no-party affiliation,” Keith said. “More and more people are stepping back and wondering why so much is happening in Washington but so little in Washington has changed.”

Florida Democratic Party officials said this was “the biggest convention we’ve ever had by far.” More than 2,000 people attended over the course of the weekend, and the party said it raised $675,000 off the event.

The enthusiastic environment was tempered among some delegates who were let down by the lack of star-power guests.

“Everybody says Florida’s so important. Well, if it’s so important, [Clinton] should be here,” said Les Thackston, a Clinton supporter from Daytona.

Others — including party leadership — either downplayed the presidential candidates’ absence or said they didn’t mind it.

“I’m not upset, but of course, I wish that they themselves could have been here,” said Wendy Sejour, a Sanders supporter from Homestead. “We are not an early primary state and they’re concentrating on Iowa and New Hampshire right now.”

Aside from attending to endorse Murphy, Klobuchar also served as a surrogate for Clinton’s campaign, addressing the delegates and sitting for individual interviews with reporters.

“Hillary Clinton has shown her strong devotion to Florida over the years,” Klobuchar told the Herald/Times. “I think you’re going to see an incredibly strong operation in Florida and a devoted presidential candidate and president to this state.”

Sanders had campaign staff in attendance but sent no high-profile politician to speak on his behalf. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is also seeking the presidential nomination, had no visible presence at all.