As always much is being made about endorsements for a Democratic candidate running statewide. Congressman Patrick Murphy, who has surrounded himself with smart pols, has the backing of most of the party establishment both in DC and Florida. Much of the establishment is sweaty about the possibility of Congressman Alan Grayson getting into the Senate Primary, while a few are also concerned about Pam Keith’s candidacy and her potential grassroots momentum. Still Murphy is a clear favorite in the race and as a candidate is doing and saying the right things thus far.
However, the logic from some Democrats that Murphy’s extensive list of elected official endorsements means Grayson, Keith or any other potential candidate has no opening is completely flawed. Congressman Grayson likely could care less who establishment figures within the party support and is smart enough to know these endorsements mean little except to a small cadre of loyal followers of each elected official.
We’ve seen in the past that endorsements from elected officials generally do not transfer votes or support to the candidate that receives the support. For example in the 2006 Gubernatorial Primary Rod Smith’s endorsements from most of the Senate Democratic Caucus and a large number of State Representatives did not matter. But Bob Graham’s endorsement of Jim Davis did matter ultimately making a big difference in the nominating race. Graham is one of a handful of individuals in the state in EITHER party who endorsement would matter to shift votes in a primary. Quite honestly, I do not know if another Democrat reaches that Bob Graham level. Perhaps Bill Nelson does in some quarters but not statewide the way Graham does. On the Republican side Jeb Bush can move voters as I witnessed in some Republican primaries while he was Governor. Charlie Crist, Mel Martinez and Rick Scott lacked this same ability within the GOP.
In 2002 when Bill McBride ran for Governor he nabbed the endorsements of just about every establishment elected official in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties. The justification was “fear” of a Janet Reno nomination, though in some quarters the real motivation may have been a political form of sexism (a topic for another day). Those who made these endorsements included Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, Congressman Robert Wexler, Mayor Alex Penelas and Senator Steve Geller. McBride was crushed by a more than 2-1 margin in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade Counties, despite winning the statewide primary by about 5,000 votes.
In 2014, Nan Rich boasted the support of five state legislators (2 House members and 3 State Senators), yet her performance in those districts was no better than in comparable districts across the state. Similarly, Governor Crist’s performance in districts where he had strong support from local legislators was not discernibly different than those where he did not. The bottom line is that most Democratic voters don’t pay close attention to the State Legislature or know who their legislators are. In urban areas, County Commissioners get far more ink in the newspaper and time on local television. While Democratic legislators have been ultimately nominated in party primaries, many voters who aren’t keyed into the political process forget who their State Representative or Senator is, or simply do not think enough about the legislature enough to care what candidates they back in statewide elections.
As we look to 2016, we see a pattern developing as an establishment effort is being made to back Congressman Murphy. Theories are abound that he is the Democrats most electable candidate. But given the poor track record of the Florida’s Democrats in anointing candidates and that the theories they have previously espoused about what makes a winning statewide candidate or campaign have fallen flat, many are skeptical. Congressman Grayson has no reason whatsoever to be intimidated by the list of endorsements Murphy boasts.
It does bare repeating that despite Murphy’s ties to the Democratic establishment, he has smartly avoided taking money from sugar unlike most Democratic candidates in the state and the party itself. This certainly could be a big boost to his candidacy when environmental issues become the focus.
Also in fairness to Murphy, it is worth noting that he has employed some smart pols not necessarily tied to the Florida Democratic establishment, which might also explain the willingness to eschew contributions from sugar. These operatives are potentially critical in steering the candidate clear of the mire of strategic mistakes every high-profile statewide Democratic candidate save Bill Nelson has made this century. It’s a depressing statistic but bears repeating that when you take Bill Nelson who was an established statewide vote-getter in the 1990’s out of the equation, Florida’s Democrats have lost 19 of the last 20 races for statewide office since 2000. This might seem like it would statistical anomaly in a purple state but sadly it is the cold hard reality about Democratic performance in the 2000 to 2014 time period.
Murphy’s team is too smart to think local legislative endorsements matter a great deal. But it’s one more card Murphy can play to show the level of backing and strength of organization he has built in a short period for this statewide race. A similar dynamic is already taking place on the GOP side where Congressman Ron DiSantis is benefiting from an establishment push which has frozen the race to just himself and L.G. Carlos Lopez-Cantera right now. DiSantis has the GOP establishment behind him, and on paper he is a potentially attractive candidate for the Republicans. But it is still entirely possible another strong GOP candidate could emerge despite the establishment efforts.
History has proven endorsements can be helpful but can also be overcome with the right campaign. Should Alan Grayson jump into the US Senate race, you can bet he will have a plan for connecting directly with the true progressive base of the Democratic Party in advance of the 2016 Primary.
Disclosure: Kartik Krishnaiyer has been advising the Pam Keith for Senate Campaign