(Part 2 of 2)
In the first part of this series, I discussed the process and candidates used by the Republican and Democratic parties to select their national party chairperson. We will now look at the process and candidates used to choose the Florida Republican and Democratic chairs.
After a disastrous showing by the Florida Democratic Party in the 2016 election, a fate which has become all too common for the party, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party decided not to seek a second term. Like recent Democratic Party chairs, Allison Tant agreed that “one and done” was the proper course of action.
Given Donald Trump‘s Florida victory, as well as a better than expected showing by Republicans in the Congressional and state legislative races, one might have expected incumbent party chair, Blaise Ingoglia, to be a cinch for re-election. That is not the case. Ingoglia faces opposition from Christian Zeigler, a Sarasota County Republican State Committeeman.
The race pits House member Ingoglia versus Senate Republicans who do not want the House and Speaker Richard Corcoran to control the supply of money. It also pits Gov. Rick Scott against party pragmatists.
Scott was incensed in 2015 when his choice to lead the party, Leslie Dougher, was defeated by Ingoglia. This rare rebuke of a governor’s prerogative to select the party chair, resulted in Scott telling donors to give money to his political action committee, Let’s Get to Work, instead of to the Republican Party of Florida. Senate Republicans pulled $800,000 out of the GOP account.
Twenty years ago, the Florida Republican Party, under the leadership of Tom Slade, was considered to be the premier state party organization in the nation. Today, after the fiasco of the previous chair Jim Greer and the efforts of Scott to decimate the state Republican Party, it more closely resembles the Keystone Kops.
At the very least, it more closely resembles Democratic Party operations (and that is faint praise).
Although the Florida Republican Party operations have been a mess for a number of years, the Democrats are approaching its third decade as a nonfunctioning party organization. The Democrats, due to their poor showing, have had a difficult time recruiting quality candidates and raising sufficient funds to support their efforts.
The Democrats lack of success at the polls has accelerated party squabbles. Every Democrat is looking for someone to blame for their poor showing, and the party chair is the easiest person to blame. The pettiness of Democrats can be seen in the 2016 election, where several potential Democratic candidates for chair were defeated in internal elections.
Alan Clendenin, Susannah Randolph, and Annette Taddeo were all defeated in races they needed to win to run for chair. The winner of the battle for state committeeman between Stephen Bittel and Dwight Bullard in Dade County will determine which candidate will run for party chairperson.
After losing the race for state committeeman in Hillsborough County after a controversial ruling by the county chair, Clendenin has moved to Bradford County in North Florida and was sworn in as the committeeman for Bradford County, making him once again eligible to run for state party chairperson.
Clendenin lost the election for the Democratic chair four years ago when he lost to outgoing chair Allison Tant by 139 votes.
It appears that Bittel is emerging as the last man standing, although there is still sufficient time for his campaign to be torpedoed. Bittel has been a major Democratic donor, which has led some Democrats to accuse him of trying to buy the position of chair.
Sen. Bill Nelson, the only statewide elected Democrat who will be up for election in 2018, says: “I think Stephen Bittel would bring that type of professionalism to the organization. We need a professional to run the organization and raise money.”
Bittel received a surprise endorsement from Keith Ellison, who is running for National Democratic Party chair. Ellison supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primary, while Bittel was a backer of Hillary Clinton. One Revolution, an organization of Sanders supporters, has announced its support for Bullard, saying that “An extremely wealthy donor wants to buy his way to lead Florida’s Democratic Party and the only thing between him and control of the party is our political revolution.”
Bittel also won the endorsements of the Florida Educational Association and the Florida Service Employees Union, two important constituency groups within the Democratic Party.
Ingoglia, the incumbent Republican Party chair, is backed by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Sen. Marco Rubio and Susie Wiles, who managed Trump’s campaign in Florida. Wiles said that “I can say that the organization built under chairman Ingoglia’s leadership was a critical element in our success.”
With that backing and the Republican success in 2016, Ingoglia should be favored. But, with Scott sitting on the sidelines, he is really encouraging Republicans to back Zeigler.
On the Democratic side, no one should be foolish enough to predict what Florida Democrats will do. After all, they seldom know what they are doing.
Darryl Paulson is Professor Emeritus of Government at USF St. Petersburg.