Florida Democrats are gearing up for one of their most crowded primaries in recent history, with hopes of winning the swing state’s Republican-held governorship for the first time in two decades.
Democrats from all parts of the state and all backgrounds are lining up to replace term-limited Gov. Rick Scott, with the nomination fight quickly becoming a veritable smorgasbord for a party that has been locked out of the governor’s mansion since Jeb Bush took office in 1999.
The winner will undoubtedly face a formidable Republican nominee, with state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam raising nearly $10 million for a likely bid. But the primary, which will take place Aug. 28 next year, will keep much of the focus within the party for most of the cycle.
“The hardest race I will have to run will be the Democratic primary,” Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the first Democrat in the race, said in a recent interview.
While Florida is notoriously fickle in presidential contests, Republicans control both legislative chambers and all elected statewide offices with the exception of Sen. Bill Nelson, who is up for reelection in 2018.
The party increased its standing in the House delegation to 11 out of 27 districts after the 2016 elections, thanks in part to mid-decade redistricting. But President Trump carried the state with 49 percent of the vote, topping Hillary Clinton by just more than a point.
Ben Pollara, who chairs the draft committee for Democratic attorney John Morgan, cited a “big existential crisis in the Democratic Party” before noting, “The only way to retake relevance in the state is to take the governor’s mansion.”
Gillum was the first major candidate in the race, but he’s unlikely to be the only one from the state’s Republican-leaning panhandle. Former Rep. Gwen Graham has toured the state since leaving Congress in January, and last month she deposited $250,000 into a new state PAC ahead of an expected bid to follow in the footsteps of her father, former Gov. Bob Graham.
Most of the Democratic field is based in the state’s other urban centers. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine launched a statewide committee last month ahead of his expected run. Orlando housing investor Chris King announced a bid early this month, promising “to run a campaign driven by a spirit of innovation and can-do optimism.” Jacksonville native Henry Davis, a recently retired circuit judge, filed to run last week on a platform of alleviating poverty.
After Barack Obama carried the state twice, this crop of candidates will deal with the new reality of Trump, who won with Republican turnout in the state’s northern parts and suburbs, and despite Clinton improving on Obama’s 2012 vote totals in Miami.
“It’s a lesson for those of us that are looking at ‘18 in terms of how you craft a message that appeals not just to interest groups or to identity politics but can resonate throughout the entire state,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in an interview, shortly before he announced he wouldn’t run for governor.
Notably missing from the field is a state legislator or statewide officeholder. Buckhorn’s decision not to run also leaves Democrats without a clear Tampa entrant for the first time in 20 years.
“That’s something a lot of folks are real happy about,” said Bob Poe, who chaired a PAC for former Gov. Charlie Crist’s failed 2014 bid to unseat Scott. He said that in the past four cycles the Democratic rank-and-file felt (he thinks falsely) that past nominees were “pushed down on the party.”
That’s “not going to be the case this year,” Poe said.
Gillum has made the most concerted effort to appeal to the party’s progressive wing, hiring the same digital firm, Revolution Messaging, from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Last weekend at a Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida meeting, he also decried the construction of oil pipelines.
In a recent interview, Levine highlighted his own bona fides, noting his city’s battle with sea-level rise and investment in job growth. But by contrast to Gillum, the wealthy former cruise-ship-entertainment entrepreneur mentioned his own similarity with Trump.
“I believe the worst background in government is government,” said Levine, who won his first elected office in 2013 when he became mayor. “And I think the Florida voters pretty much may have said that in November.”
Waiting in the wings are a number of wealthy potential candidates who could shake up the race with substantial self-funding, just as Scott did in 2010 when the health care executive rocketed to his first political office.
Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, who lost in the 2010 Senate primary, hasn’t ruled out a run. But observers place more stock in Morgan, who openly discusses the possibility of running but has said he won’t make a decision until next year. He already enjoys statewide name recognition, as evidenced by a recent Saint Leo University poll, thanks to his no-nonsense demeanor and TV advertising boosting his family-owned law firm, Morgan & Morgan.
For now, Morgan’s indecision is “going to freeze up” potential donors, Poe said. “There’s just going to be a lot of scrambling around.”