Right now, there’s a flurry of political activity in western Orange County.
With a special legislative election afoot, four Republicans are running vigorous campaigns, debating conservative ideas and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash in House District 44, which envelops Disney, Winter Garden, Dr. Phillips and west Orlando.
So, the Republicans are all in.
One the other side of the aisle is a single Democratic candidate without much name ID, support or money. As of his last report, he had raised $3,131 … with most of that coming from the candidate’s own pocket.
This, my friends, is why Democrats are chronic losers in this state … because they don’t compete.
Heck, they can’t even organize.
While Republicans are playing masters-level chess, Democrats are trying to understand the differences between red and black checkers.
In this case, we have a special election — the first local one of the Trump era in an provably anti-Trump district — and yet the Democratic Party is mostly MIA.
As a result, Democrats are about as relevant as an underwater candle.
Now, Dems have made some gains in local legislative and Congressional seats in the past couple of years. But they are still way outnumbered in the Legislature — 79-41 in the House and 24-15 in the Senate — and struggling to find a path to relevance.
Many Democrats know this.
Doug Head, who ran Orange County’s Democratic Party for 12 years until 2004, is the single big donor (having cut a $500 check) to Paul Chandler, the underfunded candidate in House District 44.
Head knows the party didn’t do squat to successfully recruit a well-known candidate and believes that was a mistake, but said he wanted to support the brave soul who stepped up to run.
“We need to rethink some of our basic assumptions,” he said of party leaders’ defeatist approach. “And maybe he’ll have a chance.”
Steve Schale, who ran Barack Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008, agreed.
“You have to give yourself opportunities,” he said. “You need to put good players on the field in as many places as you can.”
Even Chandler — a 37-year-old former teacher, bank teller and Disney worker who moved back to Orlando just two years ago to run a health-care company — knows he’s not anyone’s hand-picked favorite.
“I’ve always been the underdog,” he said. “But the only way a House seat is not winnable is if you don’t put someone in it to win it.”
He’s absolutely right.
Privately, Democrats offer all sorts of excuses for why they didn’t do more to recruit and fully back an established candidate.
There’s not enough money. The district still has more registered Republicans. Marco Rubio still won there. We don’t have good candidates ready.
Blah, blah, blah. And wah, wah, wah.
How do you think you get good or well-known candidates in the future?
“If nothing else, the exercise of running the campaign is calisthenics for the main events,” Head said. “We’ve got to build our muscles.”
Schale agreed, calling full-throated campaigns “a healthy organizing exercise.”
The bottom line: If Democrats don’t try in a competitive race like this, they’re basically waving the white flag.
Now, it’s certainly true that legislative and congressional districts are still gerrymandered in favor of the Republicans. (Democrats also rigged the districts when they controlled the state back decades ago.)
And yes, the Republicans have more money, thanks largely to business interests who believe Republicans better serve their interests. (About $200 million more in party contributions over the past 10 years — and even more siphoned through political committees.)
But all that should’ve been even more reason for Democrats to focus on a special election in a competitive district like this one, where snagging just 10,000 votes could flip a seat.
Wes Hodge, the leader of the Orange County Democrats, said the party has been working “behind the scenes” to help Chandler and said the efforts will step up after the GOP primary Aug. 15 among Republicans Usha Jain, John Newstreet, Bobby Olszewski and Bruno Portigliatti.
We’ll see. Maybe Democrats will belatedly step up their game. Maybe both sides will dazzle with impressive campaigns and hearty exchanges of ideas heading into the October general election.
Maybe. But there’s no doubt Democrats are starting behind … again.
Hodge noted that “cronyism” is the only reason they are even having this special election.
He’s right about that. The seat is suddenly vacant because Gov. Rick Scott picked sitting state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle — a 40-year-old lawyer with a lackluster legislative record, no judicial experience and not even much courtroom experience — to serve on one of the highest courts in the state.
And how did that happen? Because once again, Republicans had their chess game mastered. They were thinking three moves ahead while Democrats where fumbling to open the box.