It takes only one phone call to each campaign to see a very real difference between the two Democrats who want to wrest Katherine Harris' old congressional seat away from the Republicans.
Call Jan Schneider — who ran and lost twice to Harris, getting 45 percent of the vote in 2004 — and the candidate herself picks up the phone and talks issues for as long as you desire.
Call Christine Jennings — the putative favorite in the race despite her 2004 primary loss to Schneider — and you immediately sense the large and professional staff she has put together, first going through a staffer to the campaign manager who arranges some time for the candidate to speak with you.
That's not a knock on Jennings. In fact, it is one of the reasons that the Democratic national powers-that-be, from Rahm Emmanuel to Barbara Boxer, are campaigning for her despite the presence of Schneider in the contested primary race.
Democrats picking sides early?
Yes. The party out of power is adopting a successful strategy — employed for more than a decade now by the GOP — of identifying strong, well-funded and viable candidates before the primaries and throwing support to them, to the exclusion and dismay of others in their own party.
That technique has helped the Republican Party gain and maintain power in Florida and nationally. It is a strategy that, until recently, was anathema to Democrats, who consider themselves more pluralistic, willing to hear different voices and let the candidates duke it out in primaries.
Under the leadership of Emmanuel, who is heading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Dems are choosing sides in their primaries. It has Schneider jumping mad.
"The issue is that they don't understand this district at all," Schneider said. "Rahm Emmanuel is trying to buy off a primary. Their tactics are self-destructive. It's crazy."
Schneider avoids talking much about her opponent, except to say that Jennings' high school education won't be enough for her to make it in Washington (Schneider is a lawyer who worked extensively in the nation's capital). But further-left Democrats throughout Sarasota/Manatee and up into Tampa Bay are taking notice of the party intervention and aren't happy. They feel Schneider is more in line with progressive thought, she's earned another shot with her 45 percent showing last time and is a staunch Democrat. They whisper about how Jennings was once a registered Republican. They point to a 2005 Weekly Planet article that detailed how Jennings upset gay and lesbian activists by saying she would not publicly criticize the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment, even though she privately opposed it.
But mostly they chafe at how their party is playing favorites.
Others in the party say it is about time. They say it is not about anointing winners; it is recognizing strengths and nurturing them.
"For Democrats, it was about letting everyone's voice be heard, about standing aside while the primaries were decided ...," said Ana Cruz, a Tampa political consultant. "We don't have that liberty anymore. We don't have enough money. We have to have more discipline. We have to be more like Republicans in this respect."
It would be wrong to oversimplify this divide in today's Democratic Party as progressive vs. centrist, although that is how it is usually defined in mainstream media. It is more a grassroots, activist wing vs. professional, well-funded candidates who mirror the techniques of their GOP opponents. This split has already shown up in Pinellas County, where progressives regularly snipe at Democratic Chairwoman Carrie Wadlinger's pragmatism. And choosing sides at a national level has already claimed one party victim: In Congressional District 9, where former Hillsborough County Commissioner Phyllis Busanksy jumped into an already crowded Democratic primary with a kick-off fundraiser featuring a visit from Emmanuel, Democrat Greg Rublee saw the handwriting on the wall and dropped out.
Throughout the state of Florida, Emmanuel and the DCCC have chosen the strongest candidates — early. That includes contested Democratic primaries in West Palm Beach (where Emmanuel, instead of supporting two other Democrats already in the race, recruited a Republican to switch parties and challenge incumbent Mark Foley); along South Florida's beaches (Florida Sen. Ron Klein is the chosen one there); and Orlando (where one Democrat in the primary has received a $2,000 check from Emmanuel).
For a whole lot of Democrats who are tired of losing, this development is a welcome one. In the case of the Sarasota race between Schneider and Jennings, one Democratic blogger wrote, "Everyone deserves a second chance — nobody is entitled to a third. If Jan can win the primary, I'll consider backing her. Until then, I'm rooting for someone with a real shot at the seat."
Jennings, for her part, seems to be kind of dynamic and well-organized candidate that either party should seek. She's got a finance background, as the founder of a successful bank, and is well ahead in fundraising for this primary: Jennings has $305,000 in the bank to Schneider's $68,000. Jennings also has personal wealth that will allow her to self-finance the race should she wish to.
She blames her second-place finish in 2004 to a late start in the race. She immediately jumped into the 2006 race after that loss, while Schneider waited to see if Harris would leave her seat to run for the U.S. Senate. Jennings was sharp, personable and passionate in a conversation from her car as she traveled to Hillary Clinton's recent fundraiser in Tampa. And confident.
"I've raised the money," she said. "And if there is anything that shows your strength and support, it is your fundraising. I understand. I want to win this for the people of my area."
Whoever wins the Democratic primary will need some money, and more. The Republicans have fielded four strong candidates — wealthy businessman Vern Buchanan, local party leader Tramm Hudson and legislators Donna Clarke and Nancy Detert. And voter registration favors the Republicans as well. But some national experts have put the seat in play, simply because of fading GOP popularity nationally and the fact that it is an open seat.
Schneider, for her part, has moved some of her positions more to the center, hoping to have the best shot at winning crossover Republican voters in a general election. She insists that the very Democratic support that gives Jennings an edge right now will kill her in the general, with Republicans rejecting support from folks like Boxer or Clinton.
"I'm trying to position myself," Schneider said, "as the independent Democrat."
Pinellas Democrats for America is hosting another forum for its candidates, coming up on Friday night, March 10. Chapter president Candi Jovan tells me she has confirmed appearances by Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jim Davis and Rod Smith. Others set to appear include Florida House candidates Rick Kriseman and Carl Zimmerman. The forum is free to the public, and will start at 7 p.m. at the Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive. For more info call 727-724-1196.
Political Whore can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by telephone at 813-739-4805.