TAMPA — For Florida Democrats, winning the 2014 governor’s race is the overriding goal for the 2014 elections and, they believe, the best way they can build the party for the future.
So far, however, with almost exactly a year to go before the Nov. 4, 2014, election, they’re not yet living up to state party Chairman Allison Tant’s promise to compete strongly for the other three statewide elections on the ballot – seats on the Florida Cabinet.
Democrats have two prominent candidates for attorney general who could end up in a primary battle – former Tampa legislator George Sheldon and state Rep. Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale.
Both are known and respected within the party, but neither has ever won a statewide election. One will take on Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Democrats have no well-known challenger, meantime, for either of the other two Republican Cabinet officials, agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
The party suffered an embarrassment in August when Central Florida Urban League President Allie Braswell announced for CFO, but dropped out less than a week later when it was revealed he’d had repeated personal bankruptcies.
William Rankin, an experienced South Florida businessman and former fraud investigator, has filed to run for CFO. But while Democrats praise his qualifications, he has never run for office, while Atwater is one of the GOP’s best-known officeholders and has a reputation for strong fundraising from his base in Palm Beach.
So far, the only Democratic candidate in the agriculture race is Thaddeus Hamilton, who got 2 percent of the vote running as a no-party candidate in 2010.
Tant told reporters at a Democratic Party gathering in June the party was “actively recruiting for the Cabinet right now ... not leaving any stone unturned.’
The deadline to qualify for state offices is more than six months away – June 16 to 20, 2014 – but there are no indications on the horizon of other prominent Democrats considering those races.
Meanwhile, Democrats say they are laying groundwork for flipping Republican seats in the state Legislature, including some in the Tampa area and some in South Florida — and have realistic chances of flipping at least two U.S. House seats, including the Pinellas County seat of the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
But in a nonpresidential election year, when Democrats traditionally suffer lower voter turnout than in presidential years, those eggs are a long way from hatched.
“There has definitely been a slow start to the campaign season this year,” state Democratic Party spokesman Max Steele acknowledged, partly because new, higher campaign contributions limits that took effect caused some candidates to delay starting their race.
But he said Democrats “look forward to aggressively challenging every member” the state Cabinet. “From city council to Florida’s Cabinet we are building the infrastructure and assembling the resources to win races.”
Republicans have said the 2014 elections reveal that the Democrats have “no bench.”
“While Democrats are continuing to sort out candidate recruitment and vetting issues, we’re very proud of our Republican Cabinet and the record they will run on,” said state GOP Chairman Lenny Curry.
Most Democrats say winning the governor’s mansion is by far the most important step for the party to regain influence in Tallahassee.
Currently, besides the governor’s office and all three Cabinet seats, Republicans hold large majorities in both houses of the state Legislature — until the 2012 election, those majorities were greater than two-thirds.
Winning the governor’s office would give Democrats fundraising clout and put the veto power in Democratic hands — a key power now that Republicans no longer have veto-proof 2-1 majorities. Florida’s line-item veto gives the governor influence over legislators through their pet district projects.
But Sheldon said it’s important to hold at least one Cabinet seat.
Under Florida’s Cabinet system, the governor shares executive power with the Cabinet members, who are elected independently of the governor and don’t work for him.
On the four-member Cabinet, Sheldon noted, a two-two tie is decided by the governor’s vote, meaning one additional Democratic Cabinet member could give the Democrats a majority.
Some Democrats question how much energy and money the party should devote to putting candidates on every line in the 2014 ballot, suggesting it’s better to concentrate on a few important seats where it has a realistic chance of success — including the governor’s race, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott faces low approval ratings, and the District 13 House race, an open seat in a district that leans Democratic.
Democratic political strategist Ana Cruz of Tampa said there “absolutely” will be more Cabinet-level candidates, although she couldn’t name any.
But, she added, “We understand the need to make sure our resources are targeted. We’re never going to be able to compete with Republicans dollar for dollar, but independents and Democrats across Florida are fed up, and our grass roots organization is the strongest it’s been in 10 years.”
South Florida Democratic political consultant Millie Herrera, however, said it’s important to have candidates in as many races as possible.
“Leaving seats without opponents is not a good thing,” she said. If Democrats lose, “Having run may make them successful down the line. In the past, we haven’t been doing a good job of building the bench.”
Sheldon and Thurston both say they think it’s better not to have a primary battle in the attorney general race, but Sheldon, who left a high-level administrative post at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to run, said he’s not dropping out.
“I got in this to make a difference,” he said. “That’s why I came back from Washington. I’m in it for the long haul.”
Thurston appeared to leave open the possibility that he could leave the race, “if it’s in the best interest of the party.”
“Whoever the party thinks has the most to offer should be the one to do it,” he said. “Sometimes tough decisions have to be made. The party sometimes has to make a difficult call.”
Sheldon said his qualifications — having run large federal and state agencies and served as a deputy attorney general as well as a state legislator — make him the best candidate.
Thurston said as a current legislator, he knows the issues and can draw an important constituency to the polls, South Florida minority voters.
Rankin is a former Republican from Ohio who moved to Florida in 2000.
He was a criminal investigator in the Army who then became a business consultant, then had a high-level administrative job in the 1996 presidential campaign of Bob Dole.
He later worked for Republicans in U.S. Census field operations for a congressional monitoring committee, and in a similar capacity for a state-level Census outreach committee in the administration Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
He has since operated businesses including a publishing venture in South Africa and the United Kingdom, and worked as a consultant, helping overseas companies do business in the U.S.
In 2004, he said, he became a no-party-affiliate because he felt the GOP “just started moving so far right so fast it just left me where I was standing. The party left me.”
In 2012, he registered as a Democrat, hoping to run for a state Senate seat, but didn’t because redistricting put him in the same district with an incumbent running for re-election.
Rankin said he’s “uniquely qualified” to be CFO — “I specialized in fighting economic crime and government contract fraud.”
He said he thinks he has a chance to win “if the people of Florida get to know me and look at my qualifications,” but acknowledged, “Ultimately I’ll have to spend a bunch of money on a bunch of ads” for that to happen.