Florida Democrats hope Trump, issues end their losing streak

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — There are more Democrats than Republicans in Florida, but that hasn't helped the party win many statewide races over the past quarter century. Weak candidates, low turnout and tepid fundraising have usually left Florida Democrats on the losing end, particularly in nonpresidential years.

But now party leaders believe they have improved their get-out-the-vote and rural and minority outreach programs to go with a not-so-secret weapon to bludgeon Republicans — President Donald Trump. Some think the disdain many in their party have for the Republican president will increase Democratic turnout and money donated to their candidates.

The party's Florida leaders and strongest supporters are gathering this weekend near Fort Lauderdale, the heart of the state's most Democratic region, for their annual convention to plan strategy as they try to win November's governor's race for the first time since 1994 and keep U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, their one consistent winner, from losing re-election to the outgoing Republican governor, Rick Scott.

Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Juan Penalosa said Scott won by a percentage point in 2010 and 2014 while Democrats did little campaigning in heavily Republican regions and did a poor job of turning out voters in Democratic ones. That is changing, he said.

"We have learned from our missteps — we are developing and employing a strategy that is working in 2018," said Penalosa, who said there will be an emphasis on local issues like education. He is not as enthusiastic about directly attacking Trump as other Democrats but says it will have its place.

"Trump has absolutely galvanized our base because we now know what's at stake when we lose elections," he said.

There are 4.8 million registered Democrats in Florida, compared with 4.5 million Republicans. Some are conservative Dixiecrats who mostly vote Republican, but it's still an advantage. Even with that edge, since 2000 the Democrats have won six of 27 statewide races, mostly because they are two for 18 in nonpresidential years like this one, where the governor, Cabinet and, sometimes, a U.S. senator are elected.

One reason, some Democratic strategists say, is simple - Republicans did a better job energizing voters, particularly in 2010 and 2014 when they used the presidency of Barack Obama to motivate their base. Trump can do that for Democrats this year, some believe.

Republicans in past campaigns try to tie Democrats who have baggage, like Hillary Clinton, to Florida Democrats seeking local or state office.

"They nationalize it, whether that be Hillary Clinton or (former House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi or anyone from our party who might be seen as negative," said Screven Watson, a political consultant and former state party executive director. "We have to do the same thing with Donald Trump."

Nelson has been Florida Democrats' strongest performer the last 20 years, claiming three of the party's six wins in the 2000s (Obama had two of the others in 2008 and 2012), but that comes with a small asterisk: his last two GOP opponents, former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and former U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, ran campaigns that imploded.

If Democrats want to retake the Senate, Nelson must win. Scott, whose banned from seeking a third consecutive term, runs highly disciplined and well-financed campaigns, bolstered by his immense personal wealth as the founder of a hospital chain.

Scott seems to have anticipated the Democratic strategy - while Trump and Scott have long been tight, the governor rarely mentions him now.

Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist, said Scott won't be able to shake Trump - voters know their close relationship. He said tying Trump to other Republicans is a strategy that helped Florida Democrats win four special elections the past year.

"If this becomes a referendum on Trump, that's bad news for Scott," Schale said.

Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said the GOP hopes Nelson campaigns against Trump, believing most voters view his presidency as a success.

"Floridians deserve elected officials who will support a thriving economy, like Governor Scott, not candidates like Bill Nelson who resist and obstruct his agenda," she said in a statement.

In the gubernatorial race, where the Democrats have lost five straight, the Democrats have five candidates competing in the Aug. 28 primary, with no clear favorite. They are former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, the daughter of former Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham; former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine; Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum; and two wealthy developers, Jeff Greene and Chris King.

The winner will face either U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has Trump's endorsement and frequent guest spots on Fox News, or Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has three-times the campaign funds and higher statewide name recognition.

In the end, Watson and Schale said, both races will likely be determined by something that happens in October that swings the Florida electorate by a percentage point.

"It could come down to what Donald Trump tweets on Oct. 20," Watson said.

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