TALLAHASSEE, Florida — U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham hadn't even been sworn in yet when Democratic Party leaders began talking about her potentially running for governor in 2018.
That's not a good sign for Democrats as they seek to capture a Senate seat in 2016 and find candidates to run for the open governor's and Cabinet seats in 2018.
The party hit a low point in 2014 when it essentially conceded three Cabinet seats while putting all their efforts behind former Republican Charlie Crist in their unsuccessful effort to oust Republican Gov. Rick Scott. If their only hope then was a former Republican, it leaves open the question of who they can turn to going forward, especially when Republicans have a deeper bench and raise more money.
"We have to have a new generation of people," said Mitch Ceasar, the Broward County Democratic Party chairman. "The demographics over time will change in our favor naturally, but until that time we need to win some big races."
President Barack Obama has proven Democrats can carry Florida in presidential elections, but other than Sen. Bill Nelson, who is serving his third term, Democrats have failed miserably in statewide races. They've lost the last five governor's races and 13 of the last 14 Cabinet races. The Senate seat once held by Democrat Bob Graham, Gwen Graham's father, was captured by Republican Mel Martinez in 2004 and later won by Republican Marco Rubio in an election in which Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek only received 20 percent of the vote.
The lone recent bright spot for Democrats was when Alex Sink was elected chief financial officer in 2006. She then ran for governor in 2010 and lost to Scott, a political rookie who had been forced out as a hospital chain CEO amid Medicare and Medicaid fraud allegations against his company.
The hope for Democrats now is that one of their big city mayors or a member of their congressional delegation will be able to make a competitive run for statewide offices.
"On the congressional delegation, you have four or five of them who can be very viable candidates. My job would be to keep them from all killing off each other," said Nelson, who listed U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both of South Florida, and Gwen Graham, who won in the conservative Panhandle, as potential 2018 statewide candidates. He also praised U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a second-term congressman from Palm Beach County, who recently announced he will seek Rubio's Senate seat next year. Congressman Alan Grayson of Orlando is also considering a 2016 Senate run.
Among other names bandied about as potential Cabinet or gubernatorial candidates in 2018: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn; Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler; Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer; Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown; Palm Beach County State Attorney David Aronberg; state Rep. Katie Edwards; and Annette Taddeo, who was Crist's running mate last year.
But whoever steps up will probably have to face a better-known, better-funded Republican. Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi are considering Senate runs and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is a likely candidate for governor. And if Rubio gives up his Senate seat to run for the presidency next year, he could be a potential gubernatorial candidate if he fails to reach the White House.
"One of the reasons why we are in a stronger position is that we do have that deep bench," said Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia. "Democrats have a weak bench, period. That's one of the reasons why you see them go immediately to a candidate who just got elected in a Gwen Graham or a Murphy."
That's something Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant hopes to change.
"We are focused on candidate recruitment from the bottom up, from school board races on up," she said. "In terms of looking forward, we have to have a generational approach. There's no doubt about it. We didn't get here overnight and we're not going to get out of it overnight."
Then there's money. Florida has 12 million voters and 10 media markets. It costs millions to get a message across the state and Democrats have been badly outspent in non-presidential years. Obama had the money to win in Florida, but that doesn't help two years later when the governor and Cabinet seats are on the ballot.
In 2010 and 2014 Scott spent millions of his own money to get elected.
"There just is no short-term answer to our money problem," said Screven Watson, a Democratic political consultant. "The gubernatorial candidate has to be able to raise 40 to 50 million (dollars), and I don't see anybody out there right now that can do that. Nobody. Do we concede it? No, but I'm still looking for my Democratic Rick Scott."