by Amy Keller
When popular Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker made a swing through south Florida last March to raise money for his presumed 2014 Senate bid, Allison Tant made sure to snag him for a few hours to help out local Democrats. Over two days — in between his own campaign fundraisers at the homes of wealthy Floridians — Booker joined Tant at a “Pink Slip Rick” breakfast with Palm Beach County Democrats, an annual fundraiser for Broward Democrats in Coral Springs and a Sunday afternoon reception benefiting the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
Tapping into the star power of Democratic luminaries such as Booker, says Tant, new chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, is one of the ways she has been working to steer dollars to Democratic groups around the state. Her main mission, she says, is to put the Democratic Party on strong enough financial footing so the party’s nominee can challenge Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.
Tant, who won the race for chairwoman in January with the backing of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has her work cut out for her.
While President Barack Obama raised $22.7 million from Floridians for his 2012 re-election, he still took in less than GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s $34 million in Florida. The GOP continues to outraise Democrats. During the first quarter of 2013, the Florida Republican Party pulled in nearly $6 million, compared to $1.1 million collected by Democrats.
Scott, who sank more than $70 million of his own fortune into his campaign for governor in 2010, won’t have to use his own money as he seeks re-election: As of April, he had already raised nearly $10 million — 10% toward his $100-million goal.
It’s harder to raise money when Republicans have such a tight lock on the Legislature, Tant says. “It takes a little more explaining, a little more effort,” she says, to convince the traditional fundraising base of Tallahassee lobbyists and law firms to invest big dollars in the party that isn’t in power. It also doesn’t help that Florida hasn’t had a Democratic governor since Lawton Chiles — or that Democrats tend not to do as well in non-presidential, midterm elections, when voter turnout drops.
Historically, Florida Democrats have relied on lawyers, lobbyists and labor unions to line their coffers. In 2012, those sectors accounted for about 25% of the $16 million raised by the Florida Democratic Party. Half of the total fundraising dollars, meanwhile, flowed from just three cities — Tallahassee, Jacksonville and Orlando.
South Florida, the most Democratic region of the state, has proved surprisingly lackluster for Democrats. Boca Raton, a popular stop on the national fundraising circuit, generated just $150,000 during the 2012 elections. Donors in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach contributed $153,000 and $33,520, respectively. Miami Democrats provided the biggest chunk — close to $564,000 — but it was still less than a third of the $1.75 million Obama raised there during his re-election campaign.
Tant, successful at assembling groups of friends and allies and “bundling” their donations for the Obama campaign, says she aims to broaden the party’s fundraising base to more “non-traditional” donors, including the thousands of new, small donors nationwide who helped propel Obama past $1 billion last year. “I know there are many donors who contributed to President Obama but have not invested in the Florida Democratic Party,” she wrote in a memo shortly before she was elected as the party’s fundraiser in chief.
With the 2012 presidential campaign receding into history, however, the question is whether she’ll be able to translate Gov. Rick Scott’s unpopularity into donations for her party. With approval rates in the 30% range, Scott is widely considered the most endangered gubernatorial incumbent in the nation, and Democrats say that Scott now has a political record to use against him, including killing high-speed rail, rejecting federal stimulus money and signing into law an election reform bill that slashed early voting days.
That said, Scott has also been repositioning himself, advocating for $2,500 pay raises for teachers and also supporting a three-year expansion of Medicaid, a reversal for one of the nation’s fiercest opponents of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Florida’s steadily improving economy — unemployment sank to 7.5% in March, the lowest level since 2008 — could also work in his favor.
Democrats face their own conundrum: To date, their only declared candidate is Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, but Rich lacks statewide name recognition and has struggled to gain traction over the past year. While U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who lost to Scott in 2010, are also frequently mentioned as potential candidates, party insiders say they are waiting to see what former Gov. Charlie Crist decides to do.
While polls show him potentially trouncing Scott, some Democrats are worried about the baggage Crist brings with him, including his changing positions and party switching.
Says Ana Cruz, a Tampa-based Democratic political consultant: “For all these candidates talking about getting into the race, the clock is ticking, and we don’t have much more time to sit and wait.”