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The Farm Team: Florida Democrats May Sink or Swim in the Future

First of a two-part series

While far from out of the political shoreline, Florida Democrats claim they’re at least done bailing water, and they say the rebuilding phase for their party officially has begun.

[IMGCAP(1)]“It’s stopped getting worse,” said Sunshine State Democratic pollster David Beattie. “It’s the best that it’s been in 20 years.”

Marcus Jadotte, a state Democratic operative, said that after years of losses, “we’ve clearly turned the corner” during the past 18 to 24 months. He said the turnaround has been driven primarily by out-of-staters moving south and is evident in his party’s recent executive branch and state legislative victories.

Democrats now control 43 of 120 state legislative districts in Florida.

What’s more, Democrats are running tough challengers in at least five Florida Congressional districts this year: those held by Republican Reps. Vern Buchanan, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, Tom Feeney and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

“In registration and demographics, [voters] overall are moving towards Democrats,” Jadotte said. “Democrats have … turned away from giving away ground to Republicans in Florida.”

Case in point: Florida’s chief financial officer, Alex Sink. Elected in 2006, the former Bank of America executive is the first Florida Democrat to be elected statewide since 1992. Considered a likely 2010 gubernatorial or Senate candidate, Sink’s moderate profile, financial background and Southern accent has many Democrats hopeful.

“Alex is like a rock star,” Beattie said. Jadotte called her a “dream candidate.”

Democrats also point to state House Minority Leader Dan Gelber (D) as a possible 2010 challenger to Sen. Mel Martinez (R). Jadotte called him “one of the smartest Democrats in the state” and said he also may be a good fit for Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s (D) district, should she challenge Martinez next cycle.

Gelber “absolutely has a future beyond his current role in the legislature,” Jadotte said. “Dan lives in Debbie’s district at the moment. … If Wasserman Schultz looks at the Senate, then he’d have a clear path into Florida 20.”

Ahead of the next round of midterm elections, Democrats also are lining up possible replacements for other lawmakers eyeing a statewide run or retirement, such as Reps. Alcee Hastings (D) and Bill Young (R).

First in line in Hastings’ district, which twice gave President Bush less than 25 percent of the vote, likely would be former state Rep. Chris Smith (D). Jadotte said Smith would “have a real shot” in succeeding the 71-year-old Congressman.

Young, who flirted with retirement this cycle, is expected to be on the ballot for the last time in November. If so, state Sen. Charlie Justice (D) is expected to make a run for the 77-year-old Member’s St. Petersburg-area district, which is a battleground every presidential election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to recruit Justice to challenge Young this year, but after taking a close look, he declined.

For Rep. Allen Boyd’s (D) Tallahassee-based district, it’ll likely be all in the family should he step aside during the next few cycles. A realtor representing a conservative district, state Rep. Debbie Boyd (D) is considered one of two potential frontrunners for her cousin’s seat.

But it’s hardly a done deal.

“It’s a complicated seat if Allen decides to run for statewide office during the next few years or decides that he wants to move on from Congress,” Jadotte said. “It’s likely to be a very crowded primary. … What you’ll find is that a lot of the possible candidates in that race will have name ID from state legislative offices.”

Debbie Boyd “would be one of the leading candidates,” Jadotte continued. “She certainly is [conservative enough], but that seat also includes a pretty large [population] of state employees.”

Former Clinton administration aide turned state Rep. Loranne Ausley (D) also is rumored to be considering a run should the incumbent step aside. Ausley also has family connections in the state capital, according to Jadotte, and is considered a potent fundraiser.

“She’s also been a very successful state legislator who’d be one of the leading candidates — if not the leading — candidates for Allen Boyd’s seat,” Jadotte said.

It is unlikely that Republicans, who last made a serious run at Boyd’s seat in 2004, would leave the district unchallenged if the Congressman were to move on.

State Sen. Tony Hill (D) is considered a candidate-in-waiting in Rep. Corrine Brown’s (D) district, which runs south from Jacksonville to Orlando — a tract where Hill’s union background could be a big asset.

Hill “would be able to rally support from the labor movement from day one and use that as a strong launching point for a campaign,” Jadotte said. “He’d win that seat.”

Beattie, the Democratic pollster, also said promising Democrats are running in local elections this cycle, including Jerry Demmings, who will challenge a Republican sheriff in Orange County in November. The prominent pollster also said not to count out popular Mayors Buddy Dyer (D), of Orlando, and Pam Iorio (D), of Tampa, as future candidates for higher office.

“They’re really well-known,” he said. “They’d have more of a state profile than any legislative leader because if you’re a mayor of a city you get on TV all the time.”

Next week: Republican rising stars

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