Florida Democrats race to the bottom 

They should be riding high. Instead, they’re fighting over who gets to be party chair.

How thoroughly has the Republican Party dominated the Democrats in Florida in recent decades?

So much so that the Democrats’ gain of two seats in the state Senate last November represented the first time the party had gained seats in that body in 30 years.

Add the defeat of most of the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the GOP-led Legislature, the gain of five seats in the state House, the addition of four Democrats to the state’s Congressional delegation (a net gain of two), and oh yeah, President Obama’s unpredicted victory in the Sunshine State over Mitt Romney, and yes, you could say it’s a new era in Florida for Democrats.

But reality bites. Those gains now give the GOP “just” a 76-44 advantage in the House, and a 26-14 edge in the Senate. And the Get Out The Vote effort led by the Obama For America (OFA) campaign, heralded nationally as the greatest ground game effort in U.S. politics, has left the state.

Trying to insure that 2014 will be more like 2012 — and not like the debacle that was 2010 — is the focus of party members in choosing their next party chair. The choice is between Hillsborough County’s Alan Clendenin and Tallahassee resident Allison Tant.

Clendenin, 53, is a 20-year member of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee and serves as both a State and Democratic National Committeeman. This is not his first bid to lead the state party — he was a candidate for the office in 2010 when Karen Thurman stepped down after a rocky six years, but he dropped out when he was big-footed by former state Senator and 2006 gubernatorial candidate Rod Smith.

Now the only person standing in the way of Clendenin’s dream is another candidate promoted by party insiders: 51-year-old Tallahassee lobbyist Tant, a late entrant who was prompted to run by political heavyweights Bill Nelson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Not surprisingly, Clendenin is unimpressed.

“I’m really less concerned about what a couple of elected leaders believe,” he told CL while sipping on a cup of coffee in Tampa’s über-chic Oxford Exchange on New Year’s Eve afternoon. “I’m more concerned about a vision for the party, and that’s part of what I bring to this election, which is a voice for change. What those individuals bring to the party is a voice for the status quo.”

Clendenin’s theme is “Rebrand, Rebuild and Recruit,” and he emphasizes that the party needs to change its top-down philosophy if it’s to be competitive. And he says Democrats should not be blinded by the successes from last November.

“If you want the Florida Democratic Party to look like the Florida Democratic Party of 2010, I’m not your guy,” he says, alluding to the shellacking that brought the state Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, among others. “If you believe the Florida Democratic Party needs to look a lot more like the OFA organization of 2012, then I’m your choice as FDP chair.”

Clendenin says the key is to regionalize the party, giving more power to local Democratic executive committees, something OFA did by opening up dozens of local offices throughout the state. OFA also focused on what they called “sporadic voters,” meaning those voters who fell into a targeted demographic but didn’t traditionally come out and vote.

Two days after the 2012 election, outgoing party chair Rod Smith said the key to continued electoral success in Florida would be to focus on women, blacks, Latinos and young voters. “We just have to now keep the machinery in place and keep doing what we’re doing, and not just walk away and say ‘We had a great night’ and it’ll automatically come back to us next time,” he told reporters on a conference call. “It won’t.”

But infrastructure requires money, which is why some Democrats are supporting Tant. “Allison is a proven fundraiser,” says Rick Boylan, a state committeeman for Pinellas County. “And in all of my observation of state parties over the years, a requirement in order to be a successful fundraiser is to make sure that the elected officials are behind you, helping raise money.”

Tant’s stated agenda wasn’t released until New Year’s Day. It echoed much of Clendenin’s designs, which he announced several months ago, such as empowering local Democratic groups and emphasizing candidate recruitment.

Although the race has fired up party members throughout the state, the electorate that will make the ultimate decision in Orlando on January 26 is extremely limited. The two committeepersons in each of the state’s 67 counties get votes, as do heads of caucuses and elected officials. But the vote is weighted toward those counties with the greatest Democratic voter turnout in recent elections, which is why the big three South Florida counties (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach) have by far the biggest influence. In sum, approximately 1,150 people will decide the race — out of 4.8 million registered Democrats in the state.

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