While it was far from spooky, the Florida Democrats’ annual fete at the Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resort was less than magical for many of the delegates in attendance.
Party faithful from across the state snapped selfies beside Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but standing next to life-sized cardboard figures of the candidates, who didn’t show up at this weekend’s party convention, left some feeling flat.
“I won’t say I’m disappointed, but I expected them to be here. Isn’t Florida a battleground state?” Sheena Szuri, a yoga instructor from Miami, said Saturday morning.
Publicly, party officials stressed that Sanders and Clinton are focusing their efforts in early primary states like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and especially in Iowa, which opens the 2016 presidential contest with a Feb. 1 caucus.
The candidates have “other fish to fry,” noted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, when asked why Clinton and Sanders would ignore the convention in a winner-take-all primary state — and its 99 delegates.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and Hillary Clinton surrogate who met individually with reporters Saturday after addressing the crowd, downplayed the significance of the former secretary of state’s absence.
“She’s been to Florida. She’s going to make Florida a major priority. It’s going to be the epicenter once again. … I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Klobuchar told The News Service of Florida. “I know everyone knows that she’s going to be here a lot, and she has been here. So the fact that one day doesn’t work on people’s schedules … I’m sure she’ll be back.”
But some question whether the Democratic contenders can afford to write off the Sunshine State, even if the March 15 presidential primary doesn’t take place until the nomination may already be in the bag.
“Anybody that doesn’t interrupt their schedule to come to Florida at these state conventions is really missing the golden opportunity because it’s not just votes. It’s not just votes. It’s big money coming out of Florida,” said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus.
Florida is “the best place to be” for Democrats, according to Mitch Ceasar, a veteran Broward County party operative.
“We’re the ultimate swing state. That’s an accolade that’s earned. We don’t want to lose that status,” he said.
Clinton and her husband, the former president, enjoy immense popularity in Florida, especially in the southeastern portion of the state where many Democrats are clustered.
“She has work to do and she knows we’re working for her here. I’m not worried a bit,” said Patti Norkeiwicz, a 65-year-old Pinellas Park activist sporting a “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits” for Hillary Clinton pin she hand-crafted herself.
Even more than Clinton, Sanders — who trails Clinton in the polls — might have capitalized on energizing a captive audience of more than 1,500 base voters, including an active group of progressives who have become increasingly dissatisfied with the state and national parties’ leadership.
99 delegates at stake, but Iowa and New Hampshire still trump Florida.
“Normally I would be protesting at this thing,” Amos Miers, a 38-year-old from St. Petersburg who switched his party registration from no-party affiliation to Democrat so he could vote for Sanders in the primary. “I’ve never bought into any (other candidates). I usually write somebody in.”
But, handing out Sanders stickers, Miers said he wasn’t disappointed that the Vermont senator skipped the event.
“I would love for Bernie to be here, but with all the work we have to do, it’s not a good use of his time.” Miers said.
The highlight of the three-day event, which started Friday and runs through Sunday, is a $250-per-ticket dinner headlined by Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Clinton supporter.
Prior to the Saturday night gala, candidates for the state Legislature, Congress and the U.S. Senate made pitches to caucuses representing blacks, Muslims, the disabled and veterans — just to name a few.
The match-up between Clinton, the perceived establishment candidate, and Sanders, viewed as an outsider and embraced by progressives, is mirrored in a bitter U.S. Senate primary throwdown between Florida Congressmen Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson.
Appearing at a labor caucus meeting Friday, the two men brushed past each other without shaking hands or making eye contact before Murphy revealed he had been endorsed by the Teamsters.
On Saturday, Murphy — flanked by Klobuchar and McCaskill — held a press conference announcing the support of the two senators as well as former Congressman Barney Frank, a progressive icon.
McCaskill praised Murphy, who was elected in 2012 in a Republican-leaning district that includes part of Palm Beach County, as a candidate who can win in the general election by capturing independent voters considered crucial for a statewide win in Florida.
“He has a way of serving that brings people together. It’s not just passionate rhetoric. It’s thoughtful,” McCaskill said, as opposed to “the kind of rhetoric that may excite the base but may not excite independent voters so much.”
Outside the progressive caucus meeting room Friday, Daniel “Doc” Grief sported stickers showing his support for Grayson and Sanders.
Like many other progressives at the convention, Grief said he was skipping the Saturday night dinner. He accused the state party of “being bought and sold for Hillary,” as evidenced by McCaskill’s keynote address.
He likened progressive Democrats to “the red-headed stepchildren” of the party.
“If you’re going to keep choosing to be center, you’re not going to win. We haven’t won any state elections. We haven’t won the governorship. Who did we put up? Alex Sink. Charlie Crist. Give me a break. Who are these people? Where are the progressives? ” Grief, who lives in West Palm Beach, said. “Progressives represent the umbrella of the principles of democracy, of caring for each other. … If you don’t excite people like me, I’m not voting. And that’s why we’ve lost so many seats.”
The convention raked in more than $675,000 for the Florida Democratic Party, according to party spokesman Max Steele.
But privately, some Democrats complained about a lack of enthusiasm among the crowd prior to Saturday night’s dinner, highlighted by the absence of a high-profile Democrat like Bill Clinton or Joe Biden.
“It seems to some of the delegates that Florida isn’t seen by these candidates as important as it used to be. And the reality is it’s more so,” MacManus said. “The irony is Bill Clinton got his start at this convention with a straw poll. The feeling is that the party’s prestige among the states is slipping, and they’re really upset by it.”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida