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Life After Congress: Thurman Helps Florida Democrats Find Tools to Win

When former five-term Rep. Karen Thurman (D-Fla.) looks back on her 2002 re-election loss to now-Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R), she only partly blames her defeat on a GOP-engineered redistricting plan that targeted her northwestern 5th district.

Thurman said she also lost because “the tools weren’t there— to fight back.

In her life after Congress, Thurman has been working to provide Florida Democrats with the tools that she lacked back in 2002. Never again does Thurman want to see Democratic candidates lose because they don’t have the ability to micro-target voters or because they can’t ensure that Democratic votes make it to the ballot box on Election Day.

After two cycles as chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, Thurman is seeing her efforts pay dividends.

Since taking over leadership of the state party in 2005, Thurman has helped engineer a net gain of three Congressional seats, overseen a double-digit gain in the state House and ensured that initiatives such as the state party’s absentee ballot program are finally competitive with Republicans’.

During the 2006 cycle, the GOP’s rate of return for absentee ballots beat that of Democrats’ by almost 22 percent. Two years later, Thurman and her staff were able to cut that margin by half, to 11 percent.

Four years ago, the Florida Democratic Party was nearly $1 million in debt. Today, the organization is one of the few state parties that can boast six and seven figures in cash-on-hand totals.

“She has brought a party that was in the doldrums to being financially viable,— Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said of Thurman this week.

“From a strategy standpoint, she has been successful in picking up legislative seats and helping us to gain in the House,— Hastings added. “Now that doesn’t come about because you don’t have very strong political acumen. I don’t think there’s anyone that understands the demographics better than she.—

Thurman credits part of her success as chairwoman of the state party to the experience and contacts she gained on Capitol Hill and brought to the job.

“There was an ability for me to have some credibility as the chair of the party because it wasn’t like I was an unknown quantity,— she said. “I think there were some natural advantages … because I served in Congress, because I happened to be over in the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] more than I wanted to remember for fundraising purposes. … There were relationships built, and sometimes in politics it is about relationships.—

As Thurman begins her third cycle as party chairwoman, she said this week that she believes there’s still room for continued Democratic growth — especially in a state where Democrats held a voter-registration advantage of more than 650,000 at the end of last year and yet claim only 10 of 25 House seats.

“There are enormous opportunities for the party in 2010, in part because the Republican gerrymandering of 2001 is coming unglued, and she recognizes that,— freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said.

The most enticing opportunities for that growth, Thurman said, lie along the 132-mile stretch of interstate that runs across Central Florida from Tampa to Daytona Beach. Sometimes called the holy grail of Florida politics, the I-4 corridor represents the new-growth section of Florida and is considered the most politically competitive part of the state.

When Thurman took over the party in 2005, Democrats had a few small outposts of representation along the corridor. But party operatives said it was Thurman who really put the emphasis on targeting that region of the state and investing the resources necessary to make lasting Democratic gains.

Thurman said one of her first priorities as chairwoman was to increase outreach to minorities, particularly Hispanic communities along the corridor.

“We were reaching out into minority communities for the purposes of making sure we were hitting the dailies, the weeklies and the radio shows,— she said. “One of the ideas was you don’t just show up at election time.—

By engaging new voters and retooling state media operations to push back against the GOP media outlets, Thurman said the party was able to give Democrats confidence to win at the local level, and those victories have helped strengthen candidate recruitment when it comes to larger races.

Three of the Democrats’ four victories on the Congressional level over the last two cycles have come along the I-4 corridor, although Republicans won one of those districts back last year.

So far this cycle, Rep. Adam Putnam’s (R) announcement that he’ll retire from his central 12th district at the end of his term has put another of those I-4 seats in play. Already, Democrats are talking up Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards as a top recruit for that seat.

Thurman said she’s excited about the possibility of building an all-Democratic delegation “from the east coast to the west coast along the I-4 corridor.—

But Republicans scoff at that notion.

“Karen Thurman has obviously not gotten over her own Congressional loss,— National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said this week. “She paid the price then for her lackluster attitude, and she’ll pay the price again when she doesn’t accomplish her pipe dream of taking the I-4 corridor.—

State and national groups are already targeting Grayson, whose 8th district includes most of Orlando, and fellow freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D), whose 24th district includes the Orlando suburbs and the eastern coast.

Outside the I-4 corridor, Thurman said, she also sees opportunities in South Florida, where President Barack Obama’s softer stance when it comes to Cuba policy has put some of the state’s more hard-line Republicans in the spotlight.

And Thurman is gearing up for another redistricting battle on the horizon. In that fight, party operatives said, they will rely heavily on Thurman’s experience in the state House during the 1991 redistricting and her time in Congress during the 2001 redraw.

It’s a to-do list that doesn’t include much time to consider a return to elected office, but Thurman said she hasn’t completely ruled out another Congressional run.

“I love what I’m doing,— Thurman said. “I have been very excited and happy about the changes that have moved this party ahead. … My grandmother always told me there’s a reason for everything, but never to close a door. Who knows, if you shut doors, there are always missed opportunities.—

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