TALLAHASSEE — After his new party’s recent political woes, Charlie Crist’s biggest problem as would-be Democratic candidate for governor may not be that he switched but that the party he switched to may be of no help.
Democrats found some cheer last week as Florida House members buried the hatchet after an internal struggle and elected Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach to lead them through the 2014 elections.
But that followed events in the last couple of months that one political analyst referred to as “bad luck, bad timing and bad judgment”:
A Democratic candidate for state chief financial officer dropped out of the race when it became known he had filed for bankruptcy three times in two states, the last time just five years ago, when he also defaulted on a payment plan.
Former CFO Alex Sink, who lost the governor’s race to Republican Rick Scott in 2010, decided she won’t run against Scott in 2014, acknowledging that fundraising was a consideration.
Republican candidate Bill Gunter raised more than twice the campaign funds of Democrat Amanda Murphy, $83,000 to $38,000, before the primary election to fill Mike Fasano’s House seat. Fasano left the Legislature to become Pasco County’s tax collector, and Democrats now consider his Pasco County seat a must-get.
House Democrats ousted their own leader-designate, St. Petersburg’s Darryl Rouson, after discovering he had set up a separate campaign account to fund House races without telling Florida Democratic Party officials or members of his own caucus.
After learning of the secret fund, Florida Democratic Party chair Allison Tant fired two senior staffers in charge of strategy and fundraising for House races who assisted Rouson.
“All of these have contributed in a brief period of time to their current state,” said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor and Florida politics expert.
“It’s a public relations black eye as far as people pay attention to these stories,” Jewett said. “What’s really most important is the perception that they won’t be competitive in a lot of races,” especially the governor and Cabinet.
Crist, the former Republican governor turned independent, then Democrat, will have to decide whether to run, in part, on how much of his own fundraising and other machinery he’ll have to create and how much he can rely on the party.
The Republican Party of Florida so far has raised more for the 2014 election cycle, $9.3 million, than the state Democrats, $2.2 million, according to campaign finance records. The next reports are due Oct. 10.
Crist, now a private attorney in Tampa with the Morgan and Morgan personal-injury law firm, did not respond to an interview request last week.
“What most gets in the party’s way is the inability to be effective,” said Patrick Manteiga, a Democrat and editor and publisher of the trilingual Tampa weekly La Gaceta. “Individual campaigns have seemed to be better organized then the party itself,” mentioning Sink’s 2010 run as an example.
Referring to other complaints he’s heard, “You can’t drive into Orlando anymore and say, ‘O.K., give me all your Hispanic contacts,’ because they don’t have them,” Manteiga said.
Florida Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp counters that they’ve opened new offices in Miami and Orlando, added Hispanic outreach staff, data and research directors, established a Board of Trustees and Chair’s Cabinet for fundraising, and engaged with 250,000 people in the last week alone over social media.
“The party helps all Democratic candidates with various infrastructure needs, and if Mr. Crist decides to run for governor we will look forward to a spirited primary campaign, and will be supporting the primary winner,” he said.
After decades of Democratic dominance, Republicans captured the state’s Senate, House and Governor’s Office in the 1990s. After the latest redistricting, however, Democrats picked up seats in Congress, the state Senate and in the state House.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Legislature almost 2-1, but there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, about 4.7 million to 4.2 million — not that statewide numbers matter much in hyper-partisan district elections.
Pafford’s particular challenge is overcoming perceptions that he’s not a strong fundraiser and convincing contributors that Democratic candidates are worth the investment.
“We need to talk to people,” he said last week. “Donors are about relationships, and trust is inherent to the process.”
Democratic consultant and Crist confidant Steve Schale says the party’s recent distractions won’t have “one iota of impact on who the next governor is.”
Without telegraphing Crist’s plans, Schale said, “Every campaign has to go in and build its own operation.” He should know; Schale ran President Obama’s 2008 Florida campaign and ran the state House Democratic Caucus before that.
“Don’t blame the party … you can’t force people to run for office,” he added. “Running statewide is a multi-million dollar endeavor.”
For example, nearly three months after Attorney General Pam Bondi announced her re-election campaign, Tant promised she would “give Florida voters a strong alternative,” but no Democratic challenger has emerged.
“Chair Tant has held many meetings with potential candidates for state and local offices around Florida, and we are fighting every day for every incumbent member of our party,” Karp said. “We are committed to providing all our incumbents with the staff, resources, and strategic advice they need.”
Those who might be up to the task may want to wait four years and run for an open seat, rather than challenge an incumbent, Schale said.
For anyone who came to him now for advice about statewide office, “I probably would counsel them to think long and hard,” he added.
Broward County Commissioner Marty Kiar, who served in the House 2006-12, disagrees. He said there’s still time for qualified candidates to run for statewide office.
“It all depends on who’s on top of the ticket,” said Kiar, who rose to Democratic ranking member of the PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee.
“I’m close to Nan Rich; she’s a friend,” he added, referring to the former state senator and only declared Democratic candidate for governor. “But Charlie is also a friend.”
Kiar said he remembered, in one State of the State speech, Crist quoting John F. Kennedy, rather than Ronald Reagan.
“I think they’d both be very strong, but I also think Charlie Crist would be a very good Democratic governor,” he said. “The fundamental job of the party is to win elections, and we are well-positioned to win races up and down the ballot next year,” Karp added. “The special interests and the Republican power-brokers know that Florida is trending against them.”
Jewett said he doesn’t attribute the Democrats’ problems to bad organization, but rather the fortunes of political war.
“The Republicans have gone through their own problems,” he said.
Former Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to theft and money laundering charges.
That said, Democrats “can’t afford to have things continue to go wrong if they want to be competitive,” Jewett said.