Interesting politics in the Florida Senate

Yesterday, former State Senator Skip Campbell (D-Ft. Lauderdale) announced he will challenge incumbent Senator Jeff Atwater (R- North Palm Beach) for the District 25 seat. There are a few things that really make this interesting.

First, Atwater has been selected by the Republicans in the Senate as their designee for Senate President for the next two years. Tradition, an important concept in the upper chamber, holds that party leaders are usually not targeted during election cycles. It’s an unwritten rule that Democrats don’t fund strong races against incoming Republican leaders, and vice versa. However, Campbell has been saying that Democratic leaders have supported his candidacy.

Next, Atwater himself beat a major star in the Democratic Party, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, to win the seat for the first time in 2002. The campaign was expensive and negative – and one of the hardest fought by both parties that year. However, Atwater won convincingly. That should have signalled to any Democrat that he is virtually unbeatable.

Then, Campbell himself would be a virtual carpetbagger to some extent. Yes, his law firm has an office in the district and he owns a home there — so he may not meet the technical definition. However, this is not the district he represented in the Florida Senate until he was term-limited in 2006.

So, what makes Campbell think he can win?

Well, Atwater has not had to campaign extensively since the 2002 race. His name was on the ballot in 2004, facing only a write in candidate. That means the bulk of the voters in the district — an ever changing population given Florida’s dramatic growth — have not had to decide to vote for Atwater in almost six years. (Also, that race was only his second for the Florida Legislature — having won his first legislative seat in the Florida House in 2000.)

Next, in 2006 when Campbell ran for Attorney General against Bill McCollum, the district voted heavily Democratic. Governor Charlie Crist was the only Republican to win the district that year. Nationally, it was a Democratic year in 2006 – with the GOP losing control of both houses of Congress and losing many other races across the country.

Still, while a few might say 2006 was a fluke, I believe the nation is even more anti-Republican in 2008. This trend is holding true, with record turnouts for Democrats in the first few presidential primary contests. Given that Democratic turnout will probably be higher than usual, and given the animosity towards the GOP, I expect quite a few surprises across Florida this year.

Ah, but look at the dollars rolling in.

Senator Atwater has, as of the last campaign finance report, about $1 million cash in the bank, more than half of which was raised in the last three months alone. That amount of money means Atwater will dominate every campaign communication medium until Campbell raises (or donates – he is a wealthy trial lawyer) the same amount of money.

Moreover, the Republican Party of Florida will do everything it can to protect its own. Sure, the party would rather spend the money winning open legislative seats, protecting vulnerable incumbents, and winning Florida’s electoral college votes. But, and here’s the rub, the GOP will have enough money to do all of that, and more. It would appear from press reports that strong Republican candidates will challenge normally safe Democratic incumbents such as Gary Siplin and Dave Aronberg.

According to conventional wisdom, Republicans will have more money to spend than the Democrats. Thus, the GOP will force the Florida Democratic Party to spend valuable resources on defense, limiting the funds available to support Campbell or other challengers.

Personally, I think Atwater will win. It won’t be easy — the wind is clearly blowing right to left and getting stronger — but the Republicans will be successful in this race. We’ll know for sure when the next campaign finance reports come out in early April.

One thing I know for sure, it will be interesting to watch.

About Jim Johnson

Editor and publisher of The State of Sunshine.
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