Chaos and Opportunity Ahead for Florida Democrats | Farm Team

Posted April 24, 2013 at 4:47pm

For Florida Democrats, 2014 represents the calm before the political storm of the century.

The following cycle, 2016, has the potential to unleash unrest up and down the ballot, even for a perpetual battleground state like Florida.

One of the catalysts is Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who could headline the national GOP ticket that cycle. If he is the GOP presidential nominee, his seat could be one of two competitive Senate races on the 2016 Florida ballot.

At the same time, competitive seats, looming retirements and ongoing redistricting litigation signal an active House landscape.

Sunshine State Democrats boast a deep bench, thanks in part to their recent losses. After the GOP wave of 2010, Republicans dominated the state legislature and controlled the decennial redistricting process.

“Democrats have a range of people with pretty solid credentials winning in the jobs where things actually get done,” said Democratic consultant David Beattie, who is based in Florida.

Democrats will have a big opportunity to test their candidate stable in 2016, when both Senate races could be on the ballot.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat would be open if he defeats Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, next year. Local Democrats say Nelson is seriously considering the gubernatorial race.

“It’s on the way to being fairly serious. I think he is going to take a very close look at it,” a senior Florida Democratic official told CQ Roll Call. “It’s not very far along. I wouldn’t tell you it’s likely … [but] I think he will really look at it.”

If Nelson ran for and won the governor’s mansion in 2014, he would be charged as governor with appointing someone to serve two years as his Senate successor. But there’s some confusion about who would actually make the Senate appointment.

An aide with Florida’s Division of Elections said such a situation would leave a small window of time for Scott to appoint a Republican to the Senate. Democrats say Nelson would appoint his own successor.

Regardless, the appointee would hold the seat until a 2016 special election.

Rubio’s presidential ambitions could further shake up his home state’s political landscape in 2016.

He cannot appear on the ballot twice in Florida, which means that if he wins the GOP presidential nomination, he is ineligible to seek re-election to the Senate at the same time. But if Rubio loses the presidential primary, he can run for re-election in the fall.

Florida Democrats say there are a number of Democrats on deck to run in either or both of the wide-open fields: Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, Rep. Ted Deutch, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and 2010 gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink.

Democrats continue to mention former Gov. Charlie Crist as a potential statewide candidate. But privately, there is little enthusiasm for the former Republican among local Democrats.

As for the future House landscape in Florida, both local and national Democrats express confidence that they will make gains in the state soon. They see a pending legal challenge, looming GOP retirements and recruitment as falling in their favor.

Democrats eagerly eye the seats of Republican Reps. C.W. Bill Young and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Both of their districts slightly favor Republicans, but at least one of those members has no plans to leave Congress anytime soon.

“I am not retiring!” Ros-Lehtinen exclaimed on a phone call with CQ Roll Call. “I work hard at my job. I aim to keep it with the help of God and the voters.

“They have me as the next president of a university. … Democrats put out that rumor every six months or so,” she added. “They always cast a wide net to see what kind of fish they can get.”

Across the state, Gwen Graham, daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham, has already announced her challenge to GOP Rep. Steve Southerland II in his Tallahassee-based 2nd District.

But elsewhere, Democrats boast solid potential candidates without a specific district. That’s because there’s still some uncertainly as to what the House map could look like in 2014 and beyond.

Democrats charge that the GOP-drawn map violates a state constitutional amendment that forbids lines that “intentionally favors or disfavors a political party or an incumbent.” The litigation is pending in court.

Potential House recruits include: former Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan, Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, Tallahassee City Commissioner Andrew Gillum and Fort Lauderdale Mayor John P. “Jack” Seiler.

Several state lawmakers could also become future congressional hopefuls, including state Sen. Darren Soto and state Reps. Scott Randolph, Jose Javier Rodriguez and Karen Castor Dentel. Dentel is the sister of Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor.

Democrats continue to have high hopes for one failed 2012 candidate, former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings. Demings lost to Republican Rep. Daniel Webster by 4 points.

Republicans scoff, saying that if she could not win in 2012 with President Barack Obama at the top of the ballot, she has no chance in the future. Democrats remain determined, however, if a redrawn House map comes to fruition.

“Val Demings is someone we ultimately believe will be in Congress,” the Florida Democratic official said.

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays. The next Farm Team will focus on Republicans in Florida.