By George Bennett
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 9:59 p.m. Saturday, June 11, 2011
Posted: 8:42 p.m. Saturday, June 11, 2011
HOLLYWOOD — Amid the rah-rah partisanship of a statewide gathering of Democrats, party Chairman Rod Smith sounded a sobering note today.
“Here’s the simple truth: We haven’t won the governorship of Florida since Lawton Chiles” in 1994, Smith told about 100 party leaders at an afternoon session before the Florida Democratic Party’s annual fund-raising dinner.
“If you were looking at us as a team or a business, you would say I don’t know what we necessarily have to do, but we have to do something different than what we’re doing.”
Smith unveiled a “transformation plan” to boost party fund-raising, recruit better candidates and strengthen county Democratic organizations.
But the biggest transformation plan for Democrats in 2012, according to many of the partisans at the Westin Diplomat Hotel this weekend, may be invoking Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his dismal popularity ratings.
“We’ve got a job-killing governor in Rick Scott who has the worst approval ratings of any governor in recent or long-term history,” said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston when asked about her party’s 2012 prospects in Florida.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed 57 percent of Floridians disapproving of Scott’s job performance, with only 29 percent approving.
“Rick Scott being so immensely unpopular is going to be a big plus. How does Mitt Romney, or whoever the Republican nominee is, campaign with the governor of Florida?” said Democratic consultant Eric Johnson. “Basically, Rick Scott has damaged the Republican brand in Florida.”
National issues dominate in a presidential election year, University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said. But she didn’t discount the idea that Scott could help Democrats.
“I think sometimes the role of the governor in being the reason people vote for a presidential candidate is overrated. But an unpopular governor can mobilize Democrats who didn’t vote in 2010 and he has the possibility to swing over some of the independents,” MacManus said.
Republican communications consultant Erin VanSickle said the anti-Scott strategy shows Democrats haven’t come up with a positive message of their own.
“After 10 years of steady election losses, Florida Democrats are still planning to run against something – the governor,” VanSickle said. “If that’s going to be their strategy again, you’ll see a lot of happy Republicans.”
Democrats lost all five statewide races in 2010 and saw Republicans pick up four congressional seats and increase the already sizeable GOP majorities in the state House and Senate.
But Democrats vow 2012 will be different. They expect President Obama’s reelection campaign to devote significant time and money to the nation’s largest swing state and boost turnout among Democrats who skipped the 2010 elections.
A new anti-gerrymandering law should improve Democratic prospects when Republican legislators draw new lines next year for congressional and state legislative seats.
Tonight’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner drew about 1,200 people and raised an estimated $700,000 for the party, Democratic spokesman Eric Jotkoff said.
Broward County Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar began the evening lineup of speakers by singling out elected officials from Broward County.
Then, Ceasar added, “We are pleased to say that our governor, Rick Scott, is not from Broward. Gov. Scott is indeed not a divider, but a uniter. He is someone who has brought us together faster more efficiently than ever before.”