The election for Florida’s next governor is still a long way off, but the nomination for the Democratic Party’s race for a nominee is shaping up into a three-way race with the two leading candidates basking in the spotlight from Tallahassee.
And all three have been collecting endorsements and campaign money and issuing press releases to stake their ground on top issues from refugees to global warming in what is in all likelihood going to become one of the most expensive and hard fought gubernatorial races in Florida’s history.
The 2014 race smashed fundraising records with more than $150 million raised and spent.
The three top Democratic candidates have varying degrees of political experience and name recognition as they head out of the gate and each come with their own unique set of gifts and challenges. Ultimately, to succeed, all must develop a statewide network and raise a lot of money to get their names out there as they court the voters most likely to show up at the polls over a year from now.
“The fundamental thing is looking at who turns out in the Democratic primary,” said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political Science professor and political analyst.
Fewer than 1 million of the more than 5 million who voted in the 2014 August primary are still on the books, he said.
“Everyone else is new,” he said. “So much could happen.”
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, 37, was first to file and has been traveling around the state with a compelling personal story and a political message that appeals to progressives and younger voters. This rising star of the Democratic Party spent a good part of last year campaigning for Hillary Clinton.
Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, 54, is the latest to announce. As the daughter of the popular former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham, she’s got the name recognition and the statewide network in place to raise money and get out the vote from her successful 2014 congressional run.
And then there is Chris King, 38, a self-described “progressive entrepreneur” from Winter Park who has made a small fortune developing affordable and senior housing. He’s the son of political activist lawyer David King, who led the Fair Districts court fight over redistricting.
Other potential candidates talked about include Central Florida media personality and injury lawyer John Morgan and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine.
THE WILD CARD
With the media focus so tight on Gillum and Graham, King will need to raise money to have a real shot, data consultant Matt Isbell said.
“King is brand new to the political arena and has a lot to do to grab attention,” Isbell said.
His novice status makes him the anti-establishment candidate without the kind of political baggage that Graham and Gillum carry. Yet King demonstrated his fundraising skills by collecting $800,000 in his first two months with no prior fundraising experience.
And his campaign team includes some recognizable “inside-the-beltway” political advisors.
King is well-intentioned, but newcomers “succumb to having to make decisions that are untested, like running a statewide campaign,” said former Rep. Mark Pafford, a Democrat from West Palm Beach. “A statewide campaign needs people who are highly skilled and able to raise money.”
A candidate has to be a policy expert on dozens of issues, he said, “ranging from solar rebate programs to water quality issues to economic development and how you feel about gambling.”
The political novice has spoken out against anti-refugee policies, in favor of LGBTQ rights and fair housing.
King is a wild card, Smith said. He’s a businessman from the I-4 corridor — experience that neither Gillum nor Graham possesses.
And he’s better connected than people think, Smith said.
“But I’m not sure how well being a businessman helps a Democratic candidate in this political climate,” Smith said.
Being from Central Florida gives him a geographical and constituency toe-hold the others don’t have, advisor Hari Sevugan said.
“King occupies a lane nobody else does, and can appeal to both untapped and established voters,” Sevugan said.
Graham, who made no secret of her desire to run for statewide office for several months prior to her announcement this month, “was the odds-on favorite to enter and be the leading Democratic candidate,” Smith said.
Graham “comes into the race with much greater name recognition than any other contender unless John Morgan decides to enter the race,” Smith said.
Graham also will be able to raise large sums of money within the state, he said.
Her centrist record appeals to voters like Tallahassee resident George Kitchens, who runs a pharmaceutical consulting company.
“I’m a registered Republican but voted for her this last election. I like her moderate stance and she’s not afraid to cross party lines,” Kitchens said in an email to the Democrat. “I believe she will win many independent and crossover votes if she runs.”
But her moderate voting record and short stint in Congress could be obstacles she may have to overcome in a primary, Smith said.
“We need people who have a committed record of standing with the working class, with minorities and for our environment. Unfortunately, I just don’t see that from Gwen Graham, especially when you consider her voting record during her short tenure in Congress,” said Erika Grohoski, outreach chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee and People’s Progressive Caucus.
Isbell said Graham’s biggest obstacle will be the left, but added that Florida primaries have a history of backing centrists and left of center candidates.
As Smith said, “Democrats have been burned time after time with a moderate.”
Coming off the 2016 Presidential election, the electorate that shows up for the 2018 Democratic primary is not likely to be moderate. “It will be left of center,” Smith said.
Isbell said older voters also turn out for primaries, which could weigh in Graham’s favor.
“Bob Graham may have been out of office for over a decade, but the legend and nostalgia of the Graham and Lawton Chiles era still warm the hearts of older Democrats in Florida, who also boast higher turnout in elections,” Isbell said.
While her stronghold is in the north, Graham has to familiarize herself with central Florida and South Florida voters, Isbell said.
“Her best asset is her personal appeal. Putting her in front of as many clubs and events will be a key way for her to charm voters the same way her father did,” Isbell said. “She will be able to raise money no problem.”
Gillum needs to make himself known and keep raising money at the pace he is, Isbell said.
“Gillum’s message is strong in the primary, but in a general (election) he would need to reassure moderate/suburban voters that this young mayor is ready to lead the state,” he said.
The Democratic primary electorate is a very diverse population, Smith said. Upwards of one-third of the people who tend to turn out are African American.
“Gillum should have an advantage with that demographic, just as Kendrick Meek did in the 2010 senate race,” Smith said.
Raising money is going to be Gillum’s biggest hurdle, he said.
“I expect he’ll raise a larger share of money outside the state,” Smith said.
Gillum is going to need that money to overcome the lack of name recognition compared to Graham and Morgan.
Gillum’s camp announced he has raised over $1 million so far from 5,600 donors, with $743,000 cash on hand.
“Our people-powered campaign has raised over $1 million dollars from more grassroots supporters than anyone in the race,” campaign spokesman Geoff Burgan said. “We’re raising the resources to win everywhere in Florida, and doing it without the luxury of a famous last name, extraordinary family wealth, or the benefit of rolling over more than $1 million from previous Congressional fundraising.”
Coming from a low profile media market in Tallahassee to a statewide market will generate a lot of scrutiny of his record, Smith said, something Graham has already been through.
“Gillum has had some stumbles coming out of the block,” Smith said, mentioning the campaign-related emails and use of city money to buy a software package from a Democratic Party vendor.
“These are amateur mistakes and can be exploited by his opponents.”
Smith also figures Gillum will get the Bernie Sanders supporters who were not excited with Hillary Clinton.
“The Florida Democratic Party has always toted very centrist candidates,” said Thomas Kennedy, chairman of the People’s Progressive Caucus of Miami-Dade. “They are afraid to campaign on our values and who we are …
and on our diversity.”
Kennedy said it “feels powerful to have someone from their community represent them for once.”
KING is KING of FUNDRAISING AMONG DEMS
Winter Park businessman Chris King — the man with the least name recognition — is leading the pack of Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls with $1.8 million amassed so far. Former Tallahassee Congresswoman Gwen Graham is second with just over $1.6 million and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is in third with $1 million.
King has raised $1.8 million between his political committee and campaign account through the end of April, including $1 million he donated to his own campaign account, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
His campaign account’s month-to-month contributions between March and April dropped from $508,000 to $297,000. His political committee Rise and Lead contributions also plummeted — from $325,000 in March to $95,000 in April.
Meanwhile, Graham’s Our Florida committee raised $429,000 in April for a total of $679,000. Added to a $950,000 transfer from her congressional account to her campaign, Graham raised $1.629 million through April.
King has spent $281,000 through April, while Graham has spent $125,000 leaving each with about $1.5 million cash on hand.
After a fundraising surge of more than $670,000 in March, Gillum’s contributions dropped by 62 percent in April to $252,000. His political committee, Forward Florida, saw the bigger month-to-month drop — from almost $429,000 to $92,000.
He has spent $289,000 through April, leaving him with $744,000 cash on hand.
Contact Schweers at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
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