While Bill Nelson’s public endorsement of Stephen Bittel wasn’t much of a surprise to party insiders it does represent a risk for Florida’s Senior US Senator. Nelson’s willingness to make public his support for Bittel reflects the closeness of the FDP Chair’s race and the hope that by putting his finger on the scale, Nelson can deliver the Chairmanship for Miami-Dade County-based Bittel who Nelson has known for over 30 years.
How does Nelson’s endorsement impact the other two front-runners for the FDP Chair spot? In the case of a Lisa King, she’s an establishment figure committed to working with all factions or tribes so to speak and stakeholders in the party. If Nelson were being given practical political advice he’d have backed King or simply stayed neutral in the race as the Duval County Committeewoman seems to be the candidate for Chair whose temperament and coalition of backers would be most helpful to Florida’s Senior Senator in his 2018 reelection run.
As for Alan Clendenin, the majority of his support is coming from those far from satisfied and disaffected with recent performances of the Democratic Party. Clendenin’s base support is unlikely to be moved away from the man they support based on Nelson’s intervention – in fact it probably hardens support for Clendenin from this set of Democrats. Nelson’s decision to openly stump for Bittel might be an indicator of where the Senator’s fundraising base is in southeast Florida as well as his disconnect from the grassroots while being tied squarely to the donor class of the party.
Where is the risk for Nelson? The 74 year-old Senator faces likely his toughest reelection task in 2018. Intervention in the FDP race might soon be forgotten by most, but in a tribal climate within the party it is entirely possible that some who back King or Clendenin might work for other Democratic candidate instead of Nelson in a tough 2018 fight. It also might lead to the wrong person being elected party chair.
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 mock-able Katherine Harris and the intellectual lightweight, Connie Mack IV. Scott has carried easily in the past the medium-sized counties Democrats need to start cutting margins in if they are to win a statewide election – Volusia, Pasco, Marion, Hernando, Manatee, etc.
Given Bittel’s limited experience in organizing and likely limited exposure to the types of places Democrats need to recover in to be successful, Nelson’s horse may not be the best vehicle in the party to achieve what Florida’s Senior Senator needs. Both King and Clendenin appear to have a better grasp of what the party needs to do on the ground in places they are getting beat badly than Bittel.
Ultimately if Nelson’s endorsement does carry the day for Bittel, Florida’s Senior Senator better hope it provides him with the stable party and political boost he needs entering a tough 2018 reelection fight. If not, he may com to rue the decision to put his finger on the scale.
Addendum – Dave Trotter at The Political Hurricane has a great little map showing the downswing in support for Democrats at the top-of-the-ticket outside large urban counties since 2008.