Joe Henderson: After 5 straight losses for governor, Democrats ready to try something new

in 2017 by

Florida Democrats have been rightly criticized for having a thin bench, especially when it comes to the top of the state ticket. I mean, they have lost five straight governor’s races, including twice to Rick Scott.

Drop the mic.

After Scott beat Charlie Crist in 2014, it was clear Floridians were sending a message to Democrats. It was almost like running a retread like Crist with all his baggage was the final straw. Voters seemed to be screaming, “Is that all you’ve got?”

They want fresh faces, new ideas.

Well, as the 2018 battle to succeed Scott shapes up, that’s just what they may be getting.

With the announcement that Orlando businessman Chris King is entering the field for the nomination, the expected Democratic field doesn’t so far  have anyone who has run for statewide office before — although Orlando insurance giant John Morgan, who is rumored to be considering a run, did conduct a successful campaign to legalize medical marijuana.

King joins Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum as the only declared Democrats in the fray, although Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and Morgan could jump in.

For what it’s worth, in an email to the Orlando Sentinel, Morgan praised King as “super bright, telegenic [and] very focused.”

That would be a welcomed change for Democrats, who have been plagued by both timing and uninspiring candidates going back nearly 20 years. Starting in 1998, Buddy MacKay was over-matched against Jeb! Bush, who worked hard to sway typical Democratic voting blocs like African-Americans and Latinos.

Bush also easily beat the late Bill McBride, a Tampa attorney, in 2002, and Crist, then a Republican, handled former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis four years later for the GOP’s third straight win.

By conventional wisdom, that trend should ended when Democrats chose state CFO Alex Sink to run against Scott, a clunky unknown outsider. With the Great Recession hammering Florida hard though, Scott had the right message: Let’s Get To Work.

It connected. Sink ran a lackluster campaign and Scott took the upset win. He held off Crist, now a Democrat, four years later. Like the other Democrats who tried and failed to win the governor’s mansion, Crist failed to excite voters.

This was a seismic shift. When Tampa’s Bob Martinez won in 1986, it was just the GOP’s second gubernatorial win in Florida since reconstruction. Both Republicans, Martinez and Claude Kirk, lasted only one term.

Whichever Democrat emerges with the nomination this time likely will face an uphill fight in 2018. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who many expect will win the GOP nomination, is well-known, popular and good on the stump.

That’s why the Democrats’ best, and maybe only, chance is to choose someone that can match those traits with Putnam. Morgan and Graham would seem to qualify. Both are not ashamed of being liberal, they could raise lots of cash, and maybe they get Democrats excited to vote for them instead of against a Republican – especially if President Trump’s approval ratings continue to fall.

Maybe King’s populist tone or Levine’s record of philanthropy and history of largely self-financed campaigns (limiting contributions to $100 or less) gains traction. Maybe someone we don’t even yet know jumps in with a message that connects.

Either way, one thing seems clear at this point.

Win or lose, Democrats seem to have gotten the message. It is time for something new because the old way isn’t working.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.