Two things happen when political death occurs: The opposition beats their chest and allies start pointing fingers.
The unfortunate case of Allie Braswell for statewide Chief Financial Officer certainly fits the bill. Braswell’s unfortunate decision to announce his decision to run for CFO without doing all the required homework led to probably the shortest statewide campaign in history. Predictably, both sides pounced on the Democratic Party’s inability to recruit strong statewide candidates.
I try to use this space to write about objective matters — data and trends. I try to avoid writing about my clients and certainly have avoided writing about the mechanical ups and downs of the Florida Democratic Party. But I thought this was a good opportunity to share a little context.
In my 17 years in this industry, I’ve worn a lot of different “hack hats,” including candidate recruiter. Quite honestly, it was easily the most challenging job I’ve ever had, and in some ways, the most rewarding. Seeing someone who you encouraged for months actually take the plunge, then thrive as a candidate and win is truly a joy.
But recruiting is very hard. Failure is the only given — you will hear “no” far more than you hear “yes”.
And candidates matter. I knew in 2006 on the last day of qualifying that we would pick up seats in the Florida House — something my party hadn’t done for 14 years, simply because we had put better players on the field. Most of the time, voters get it right — meaning that in a competitive open seat election, they will choose the better resume.
I have a lot of friends who subscribe to the “we need a candidate in every seat” strategy, when in fact, history shows we need really good candidates in the seats we can win.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard “FIRSTNAME LASTNAME” is a phenomenal candidate BUT…” in my time working at the party, I would be retired to a lake house in North Carolina.
If you have to use “BUT” to describe your candidate, in the words of my friend Bernie Campbell, they aren’t a great candidate. If I have a critique of my party over the years, there has been a tendency at times to take whoever raises his or her hands, even if there was a “BUT” in the resume, or trying to make those candidates into something they are not.
In 2005, when I was recruiting for 2006, as a one-man shop with 120 seats on my radar, I had two choices: really focus on opportunities or focus on everything.
I chose the former. Luis Garcia won a seat in Miami that no one thought we could win because we decided — despite the early entry of another candidate — that he was the only one who could win that seat.
We could have walked away from it and focused finding candidates in other, less winnable seats. Again – and academic research bears this out – candidates and candidate quality matter.
So here are a couple of things to keep in mind about candidates:
- Most sane and qualified people will initially think you are nuts to suggest running for office. I am a big believer that the best candidates for office in swing seats are the community leader types who have spent a lifetime running for office and never knew it. This is surely because that was the model from my first boss, Doug Wiles, who had done about everything imaginable in community service except put his name on the ballot. But a lot of these types don’t want to run. They abhor partisanship, they think they can make a bigger difference locally and/or they don’t want to take the time away from their business and family. I had districts where I talked to 30 to 40 people, all who said no.
It is especially hard when you are recruiting people to run as Democrats. Again, understanding the type of profile that tends to win in swing seats, the idea of serving in the minority is not appealing. Add to it the need to go to war every two years to get re-elected and it can be a hard sell. It isn’t an excuse — it is a reality. I do think this changes some if a Democrat is elected governor.
2. Term Limits affect everything. There is now a ton of academic research that demonstrates how term limits impact the decision of candidates to run for office. Incumbency is a pretty big deal. I can’t remember the exact number, but fewer than 20 incumbents have lost in the Florida House since term limits started in 2000, and on the State Cabinet, you have to go back to 1998 to find an incumbent who was defeated (Sandy Mortham in a primary) and back to 1994 to find a Cabinet member who lost re-election in a general election. If you assume that most successful candidates are rational actors, they can use Google and find this out as well. Rational candidates don’t typically engage in high risk or fruitless endeavors.
3. When it comes to campaigns, people in politics make decisions based on their interests, not their party. Pundits, observer and activists tend to talk about candidates in the abstract. But often people forget that candidates are people too.
Take, for example, Jack Seiler, the mayor of Fort Lauderdale. I think Jack is one of the brightest and most talented elected officials in our. Jack could be a strong candidate for Attorney General or CFO. But I am also confident that Jack will not be on the 2014 ballot? Why? He has a great job that he loves and he has a family. Running against an incumbent is an uphill climb and my party has a history of being unkind to candidates who run and lose. So why risk it when he can wait four years and run when there is no incumbent.
For this reason, I don’t buy into the lack of bench argument for either party. One of the other laws of politics: things are never as bad or as good as they seem certainly plays in here. Without going too deep in the weeds, I could think of a dozen Democrats like Jack Seiler who would be strong statewide candidates for one of the three Cabinet positions. And none of them are likely to run. Why? Because they don’t have to. This is less of a bench problem than it is a calendar problem.
Do I wish some of them would step up and run? Absolutely — competition is at the heart of a vital democracy. That being said, do I understand their decision to sit these races out? Completely I do.
And I don’t suspect this is a conversation we will be having in 2018.
Which takes us back to Allie Braswell. I run into a lot of Allie Braswell’s on the road – well-intentioned people who say “why not me” when looking at running statewide.
They underestimate the sheer size and scope of Florida, the challenge of raising money, and the scrutiny that comes from the magnifying glass of public attention.
I’ve worked on four statewide campaigns and one other statewide operation, and until you’ve done it, you simply can’t comprehend just how big Florida really is. I basically gave up sleep for entire years — and I wasn’t the one on the ballot.
Dan Gelber once said that running downballot is like running for governor on a State Senate budget and campaign. And as Dan proved, if you pick the wrong year to run, there isn’ t much you can do anyways.
Therefore, when I get a chance to talk to these folks, I lean in pretty hard on these points, and always encourage looking at another office. Running statewide when you are not ready and losing by a huge margin isn’t good for you, or your party.
Was the Braswell candidacy an utter disaster? Yes.
Does it mean the end of Democrats in Florida? Hardly not.
And for my Democratic friends, while I think 2014 could be a good year at the top of the ticket for the home team, it isn’t going to be a huge year down the ballot. The open seats in the Legislature aren’t great either. But as you look to 2016 and 2018 and beyond, more doors open.
People say politics is about timing and opportunity — and I would add one more, preparation. So don’t stress about the Allie Braswell deal — start focusing on where the opportunities exist on the future calendar. And don’t take my word for it — look at history. It is how the GOP went from the sidewalk to the penthouse.