[FL-13 is] the most botched House race of 2014.
Pinellas County is unlike any other metropolitan county in Florida. In stark contrast to neighboring Hillsborough, the three Central Florida urban counties and southeast Florida, Pinellas tends to be less transient and more insular in many ways. Yet the local Democratic Party seems to have not learned this lesson, nor the lessons of recent elections. The mistakes Democrats made in 2002, 2004 and 2010 were repeated in both the March special election defeat of Alex Sink as well as in the absolute meltdown of the past few weeks.
Going back to my time in the Young Democrats during the mid 1990s, the Bill Young Congressional seat (then CD-10, now CD-13) was talked about as one that would flip for certain when he retired or passed away. Southern Pinellas has now been trending Democratic for 20 years. But the Republicans remain a formidable force locally, something reinforced in legislative elections where Democrats have consistently under-performed. Given the opportunity afforded by the October 2013 passing of Young — who had served with distinction for over 42 years in Congress — the Dems blew it not only in a big way but in a fashion the best novelists and political satirists could never have imagined.
From the get-go Democrats decided the CD-13 special election represented a line in the sand. But since Democrats in Florida have for years not based the success and failures of party leaders, consultants and vendors on wins and losses, a free-for-all ensued with moving goalposts and fluid expectations. Still, throughout this period the state and national political press continued to view CD-13 as a national bellwether and Charlie Cook, who is an expert on Congressional districts, even rated CD-13 after the Sink defeat as one of the top ten targets for Democrats in November 2014.
The Democrats locally, under pressure from the state and national parties, had accepted Alex Sink from across the bay as our candidate. In this process they threw Jessica Ehrlich aside, a decision which many agreed with at the time but now looks in hindsight to have been a serious error. We have discussed at length the failings of the DCCC and FDP in the March special election in which Sink threw away a double-digit lead in a district won twice by President Obama and was defeated by David Jolly, an undistinguished Republican.
The strategy of the Democrats in that race was based on decades-old assumptions that we have dissected time and again on this website. No need exists to rehash all of the mistakes made in the Special as it is simple enough for readers to do a search on Alex Sink on TFS and find all the articles from February, March and April about that campaign.
But what happened following the Sink defeat takes us from the farcical to the sublime. Having just blown an eminently winnable nationally high-profile race, the local DEC, the DCCC and their enablers around the state and nation proceeded to make an even bigger mess. I have spoken to multiple leaders on the ground in Pinellas over the course of the last ten days since the close of candidate qualifying for Congress and have a clear picture of how things have played out. The below narrative will hopefully clear up some of the misconceptions of what has happened in the past twelve days.
Following Sink’s loss, the Democrats failed to recruit a big-name candidate to challenge Congressman Jolly despite a relatively deep local bench. Rev. Manuel Sykes, a local African-American pastor, stepped forward to run. Rev. Sykes is not only well-connected locally but knows virtually every NAACP and Civil Rights community leader in the state. It can be argued he would have been a candidate who could not defeat Jolly, but he was willing to run and was importantly, according to my sources, willing to stand down voluntarily if the party found a stronger candidate running on the Democratic line.
But the party could not find a stronger Democrat. Instead they turned to Republican-turned-Democrat Ed Jany who had a good paper profile. However, due to state law, Jany could not run as a Democrat because he had just recently changed his party registration. Instead, he would be forced to run as an NPA. Like Alex Sink, Jany is not from Pinellas County but instead from across the bay in Hillsborough. In the process of recruiting Jany, Rev. Sykes was asked to leave the race. Party leaders, I am told, were worried about Sykes playing a “Kendrick Meek-like spoiler role.” This theory works if a) you believe Meek’s candidacy cost Charlie Crist the 2010 Senate race (though I firmly believe Marco Rubio would have won regardless) and b) if you believe Democrats should not field candidates who reflect their values in order to back party-switchers running as NPAs.
The Tampa Bay Times has done extensive reporting on the call made to Sykes by local DEC Chairman Mark Hanisee which forced the Sykes from the race. Following the close of qualifying, divisions were apparent locally and the party was badly divided not only along racial lines but also with many white progressive leaders opposing the establishment wing of the local party, which they see as unprincipled and lacking any cogent ideology. Statewide African-American leaders were incensed about what transpired with regards to Skyes. The obvious takeaway was that turnout could be badly impacted in one of the most critical counties in the state come November.
Last week it became obvious Jany was never properly vetted by the party locally or nationally — reminiscent of the fiasco over CFO candidate Allie Braswell last year. In the Braswell situation, it was the Florida Democratic Party that dropped the ball, though a highly-placed source has informed me that some in the FDP were, in fact, not only aware of Braswell’s liabilities but also against his candidacy, and were overruled internally. In the case of Jany, it appears this debate didn’t even occur internally, as no vetting had taken place until after qualifying closed. Today Jany, citing professional responsibilities at this summer’s World Cup, dropped out of the race leaving Jolly with no opposition from a major party.
This sets the party back in an emergent, large, Democratic-leaning county. The Pinellas DEC had previously made progress when Toni Molanari was the chairwoman not that long ago, but since has begun to backslide since her defeat in her own precinct in 2008. Since then fiefdoms have popped up throughout the county with elected officials wielding power, oftentimes thankfully in a positive fashion.
Once such occasion occurred yesterday with State Rep. Dwight Dudley, among others, leading an effort of multiple elected officials locally to Democrats in the county stating that Chairman Hanisee’s views regarding Reverend Sykes were not reflective of the spirit of the party. For that he is to be commended. Hopefully this signals a useful way forward.
Tomorrow we will discuss where the party goes from here to heal these divisions and the potentially positive role the state party can play in this matter.