US Senator Bill Nelson has put his finger on the scale in favor of FDP Chair candidate Stephen Bittel. Nelson’s move could well be enough to ensure Bittel’s victory but perhaps Nelson, the lone statewide elected Democrat the last six years will need the party to grow in strength and stature to see himself reelected in less than two year’s time.
Democratic candidates at the statewide level have become prisoners of party dominated by southeast Florida money and Tallahassee-insiders. If elected, Bittel would be the first chairman from south of Ocala since Bob Poe and the first one from southeast Florida this millennium. However, being a donor/fundraiser who likely doesn’t know the hinterland as well as needed the hope will be that he surrounds himself with operatives that are not typical Democratic insiders – the same types of people who have literally fiddled while mid-sized counties like Volusia, Pasco and Flagler have quickly moved from leans Democratic to solidly Republican.
Nelson’s reelection effort depends on Democrats recovering in the types of medium-sized counties – including Brevard which Florida’s Senior Senator represented when he was a member of the US House of Representatives, where the party has lost ground in each of the last four election cycles. Nelson’s prospective GOP opponent Governor Rick Scott isn’t a heavyweight by any stretch of the imagination – but he is a much stronger and formidable figure than that of Nelson’s two previous GOP opponents – the mockable Katherine Harris and the intellectual lightweight, Connie Mack IV.
Importantly, Scott has either benefited or contributed to a Republican uptick in the very areas Nelson has long counted on to rack up big margins and buck the trend in this state which has seen other Democrats lose 20 of the last 21 elections statewide.
Despite some cockiness spreading through Democratic ranks that 2018 will be a wave election thanks to the perceived polarization that will be created by a Trump presidency, nothing is certain about an off-year election. Three of the last four off-year elections have been disastrous for Democrats – and Nelson was fortunate enough to run in the single off-year cycle in this period that was favorable to the Democrats, 2006. Nelson it must be remembered ran in that cycle against the incredibly weak Katherine Harris, quite possibly the single most damaged candidate the GOP has nominated for statewide office in Florida since Claude Kirk’s second run for Governor in 1970.
Senator Nelson will need Bittel or whomever the FDP Chair is to help rebuild the party on a grassroots level outside southeast Florida and the Tallahassee area. An emphasis has to be put on empowering local parties and networking with progressive and issue-oriented activists in areas outside the largest urban counties. As we saw in 2016, the infrastructure for the GOP to pull out voters they have ID’d as supportive in places like Volusia, Pasco, Brevard and Polk counties creates an obstacle to Democratic Party success.
The reality is clear – the media and Democrats can mock Governor Scott but if in fact he becomes the US Senate nominee for the GOP, Nelson will face by far his most difficult reelection effort at a time when the Democratic Party potentially might be at its lowest ebb in the history of this state (excepting the years when reconstruction elections were allegedly rigged). Nelson’s handlers realize this and per usual have chosen to weigh heavily into the Democratic Party chairs race when the Senator faces reelection.
However, this time the stakes are higher than in the past as Democrats are one cycle away from totally irrelevance in the state (as opposed to today’s relative irrelevance) and since Nelson’s own political career is on the line, perhaps his decision to tip the scales is a positive development that demonstrates he will be more engaged in party building the next two years? Or perhaps it’s just more of the same from the establishment…