Florida Democrats will elect a new chairman Saturday as former Sen. Rod Smith steps down from the position after the party's most successful election cycles in years.
Alan Clendenin, a Tampa-area activist, and Allison Tant, a long-time Democratic fundraiser from Tallahassee, are seeking the seat Smith is leaving after two years.
Smith took over the party after a disastrous 2010 election cycle. Democrats lost the governor's race and all three Cabinet races, while their candidate for Senate, then-U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, came in third to Republican Marco Rubio and then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who ran as an independent. Four incumbent Democratic congressmen also lost seats and Republicans made gains in the Legislature.
Now Democrats are hoping their successes last November weren't just based on the strength of President Barack Obama's campaign machine. In addition to Obama's Florida victory, Democrats elected four new congressmen and Sen. Bill Nelson easily won re-election against Republican Rep. Connie Mack. Democrats also made gains in the Legislature, defeating enough Republican incumbents to take away the GOP's supermajority.
The top priority for Democrats regardless of who's elected chairman will be defeating Gov. Rick Scott, whose approval ratings have been low.
"We need to be using all this energy that's within the Democratic Party right now," said Tant. "I want to make sure that we have very regular voter contact and voter engagement going on. I want to make sure going into 2014 our messaging is on point and of course we need to take back the governor's mansion and we need to look very strongly and some more House and Senate seats as well as the Cabinet positions."
Tant is endorsed by, among others, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also serves as the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, and Nelson, who is Florida's highest Democratic elected official. Clendenin is endorsed by, among others, former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who was the party's nominee for governor against Scott in 2010.
Both candidates have been aggressively pursuing the position by traveling the state and meeting with party activists and with frequent email appeals.
Clendenin said the party has changed little in years and that it needs to redesign its structure to be successful outside a presidential year.
"While we can point to some successes in 2012, really those successes are in a great deal contributed to the organization and infrastructure that the president's campaign brought to the state of Florida," he said. "Believing that we can just roll out the same strategy, the same team, the same organizational structure that existed in 2010 ... and expect different results, we're just kidding ourselves."