Democrats approach 2014 gubernatorial race gingerly; is Charlie Crist a distraction?

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Even as Florida Democrats gathered here to nominate President Barack Obama for re-election, they were still mindful of a target closer to home: Republican Gov. Rick Scott, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Party officials and activists are clearly animated by the prospect of defeating Scott, who emerged from one of the closest elections in Florida’s history to become one of the most unpopular governors in recent memory. And while Scott’s numbers have improved recently, Democrats are still hopeful that 2014 will bring their first victory in the race for governor in 20 years.

A question still hovers over the race, though: who will their candidate be?

Former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink lost to Scott in 2010; most of the mayors thought to be interested in the office, as well as Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, have never run a statewide race; Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith was Sink’s running mate and is currently focused in part on his 25-year-old son’s battle with a rare form of cancer. Former Sen. Dan Gelber was defeated soundly in the 2010 attorney general’s race.

And former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who spoke on Obama’s behalf on the final night of the convention, is technically still not a Democrat after bolting the GOP by dropping his party registration in 2010. Crist is also the target of charges of political opportunism, magnified by the fact that he left the Republican Party largely to avoid defeat in its U.S. Senate primary.

“I don’t think anybody would be the designated candidate,” said Michael Moskowitz, state committeeman for the Broward Democratic Party. “It would be a wide-open primary, in my opinion.”

With the exception of Rich, no one has actually officially declared their candidacy, preferring to let the smoke clear from the heated battle over the state’s 29 electoral votes before plotting their next move.

The candidates who have most clearly indicated that they’re seriously considering a bid are Sink, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Jimmy Morales, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner. But even they are circumspect.

“I’m leaving the door open and after this election I’ll spend a good amount of time evaluating whether I’m going to get back into it,” Sink said.

Part of that is practical: Few Democrats would benefit from being seen as more concerned with their own futures than with how to deliver the state to Obama.

“All this speculation about the governor’s race and about Charlie Crist is a distraction,” Sink said.

But how well Obama does in Florida, a state that is critical for Republican hopes of taking the White House, might also play a role. Obama’s campaign views Florida as a potential knockout blow to the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, and is expected to invest accordingly. A win could benefit Democrats.

“Some folks would argue that it’s easier if we re-elect the president because of the power of incumbency might put Florida in play,” Dyer said.

Even with Smith’s term as party chairman winding down, he said he wasn’t willing to discuss 2014 in light of his son’s illness.

“I’m not making any decisions in my life; my family, we’re not making any decisions in our life that aren’t related solely right now to seeing how our son is doing,” he said.

As for one of the more intriguing names in the race, party activists seem to be divided on Crist, with many viewing the former governor with suspicion even before he declined to announce a party change in Charlotte. Crist has the best name ID of any candidate who might enter the race, but a long trail of old, conservative positions that could haunt him in a Democratic primary.

“The name ‘Charlie Crist’ doesn’t mean anything to me,” said Samuel Horton, vice president of Escambia Democratic Party. “I’m looking at what your policies are going to be. What are you going to fight for?”

Crist received a tepid response to his speech in the conventional hall Thursday, particularly after declaring early in his speech that he still disagreed with Obama on some issues.

But other delegates were more enthusiastic. Cedric McMinn, a delegate from Miami, said Crist was the “most exciting name I’ve heard” in connection with the governor’s race. He pointed to Crist’s decision to extend early voting, potentially costing Arizona Sen. John McCain a chance to win Florida, as an example of Crist’s nonpartisan leadership.

“With that mindset, we need somebody in leadership like that — whether Republican, Democrat or independent,” McMinn said. “That’s a refreshing thing to have someone like that in politics.”

In addition to Dyer, the Orlando mayor, a number of other Democratic local and former local officials’ names often come up when discussing potential statewide candidates. Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has been named in that discussion for several years, and after his high profile role in running the city hosting, ironically, the Republican National Convention, the current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has gotten some statewide notice. New Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown is also seen has having a promising future by some in the party.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.