Saturday, November 8, 2008

Obama News - Fresh New World for Democrats

It's likely that Obama will be back here often to help raise money for Democrats in the next election, just as President Bush used his position to help Florida Republicans.

MIAMI -- Barack Obama's victory in battleground Florida means more to state Democrats than just avenging the 2000 presidential recount: It's proof they can win the big races.

After a decade in which Republicans carried two presidential elections, three governor's races and built strong majorities in the state Capitol and in Florida's congressional delegation, Obama's victory here is a sign that the Florida's politics are becoming more balanced.

"It's a fresh new world for Democrats," said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor, citing Obama's ability to compete in traditionally conservative areas.

The 2008 election means more hope for Democrats as they look to the next election and possible 2010 matchups against Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez. As the Obama campaign packs up in Florida, it will leave behind an organization that the party and the right candidates can take advantage of from Key West to Pensacola.

"Those are relationships that aren't going to disappear because the campaign comes to an end," said Steve Schale, Obama's Florida director.

Democrats showed that they can match the ground game that Republicans have dominated, using an army of volunteers to knock on doors and drive an early-vote effort that made a huge difference in the election. Even before polls opened Tuesday, about 360,000 more Democratic ballots were cast than Republican. Obama won the state by about 200,000 votes.

Democrats also registered far more voters for this year's election, and they now outnumber Republicans by about 600,000 voters.

Schale's hope is that Florida Democrats can now do what Republicans did in the 1990s. He pointed out how Jeb Bush lost his first governor's race in 1994, but put together a strong organization and kept building on it after the election.

The party structure Bush put together helped Republicans take control of the Legislature. And when Bush ran again in 1998, he crushed Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay and started a string of big victories.

Republicans kept building on their majority in Tallahassee and in Florida's congressional delegation. Bush's brother, President Bush, won Florida by 537 votes in 2000, then won re-election by 381,000 four years later. Jeb Bush easily won re-election and Crist won comfortably in 2006 in what was a bad year for Republicans nationally.

In 2004, Republican Sen. Mel Martinez took away the seat Democrat Bob Graham held for three terms and Democrats had more losses in the Legislature. That's when they hit their low point.

In 2006, Democrats began showing signs of a comeback. They won back some legislative seats, took two Republican U.S. House seats and Alex Sink was elected chief financial officer, marking the first time since 1998 that a Democrat won a Cabinet seat.

But Tuesday night was even bigger.

"In the biggest of all prizes, Democrats have now broken the streak," said Corrigan, who also said Crist "has got to be concerned about the future of Republicans in Florida."

Democrats also defeated two Republican congressmen, Reps. Tom Feeney and Ric Keller, though Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney lost largely on the news of ethical and legal investigations surrounding extramarital affairs.

Tuesday will help Florida Democrats shed their reputation as losers.

"This shows that you can win Florida and the right candidate can be competitive," said David Beattie, a Democratic strategist based in Fernandina Beach. "It makes it easier to attract good candidates, it makes it easier to raise money and the support you need."

Obama's win doesn't mean that the Republican Party is no longer strong. The state GOP was able to keep the balance of power in the state Legislature despite the Obama wave, and it defended four other congressmen on the Democratic hit list. It still has a solid organization.

"I really don't know if it is the Democratic Party that got better or if it was a phenomenally well-funded and well-organized Obama campaign," Jeb Bush said Wednesday in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "In either case, Republicans can't rest on past laurels."

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Karen Thurman said she isn't going to rest at all. She said she is going to immediately start recruiting candidates for 2010 and improving on the party structure.

"Everybody else is shutting their computers off, turning their phones off and going on vacation," Thurman said. "We at the party have to keep going, and building and building, and using what information we've gained from this election."

Still, Obama will not be on the ticket, and Democrats can't just assume they can win simply on the organization he built.

"They've got to have somebody at the top of the ticket that can capture that excitement again and that's very hard to do," said David Johnson, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist and former executive director of the state party. "You can't beat Charlie Crist based on Barack Obama's star power, you're going to have to have a candidate that stands on his own."

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