Florida Democrats’ Crowded 2018 Fight

Shut out of the top office in the Sunshine State for 20 years, Democrats face a historically diverse field looking to replace Rick Scott.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum
Chet Susslin
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
March 20, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.”

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