LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida — Sen. Bill Nelson delivered the biggest understatement during a weekend-long state Democratic Party convention that was supposed to fire up activists for next year's election.
"This is a state that hasn't elected a lot of Democrats recently," he told hundreds of activists at a dinner Saturday night.
Recent? Actually it's two decades of futility with very few successes outside of Nelson's three-term run in the Senate and President Barack Obama's wins here in 2008 and 2012. Democrats have little to brag about as Republicans have won five straight governor's races and built dominant majorities in the Legislature and in the state's representation in Congress. They've lost 13 of the last 14 Cabinet races.
But that doesn't mean they don't have hope, and next year Democrats see Florida as a key to winning back a majority in the U.S. Senate now that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is giving up his seat to run for president. They need to pick up five seats. The problem is that it's going to be a long, nasty primary between U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson.
"Why is Patrick Murphy, a lifelong Republican, running in the Democratic primary?" Grayson, 57, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "He's not a real Democratic. He's a fake Democratic — a self-promoting faker. His political career was launched by an act of opportunism."
Yes, Murphy was a Republican, and Grayson constantly reminds people. His campaign flooded the convention hall with copies of a fake check representing a $2,300 contribution Murphy made to Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign. But he's a former Republican with the backing of many in the Democratic Party establishment in Tallahassee and Washington.
Murphy, 32, is seen as the better chance to win the general election in a state that tends to be more moderate. He's a prolific fundraiser and has worked hard to line up endorsements. On Saturday, that included Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Minnesota and former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank.
"The polling shows that he's the stronger candidate," McCaskill said. "I'd lay a healthy bet that independent voters in Florida will decide who will win the senatorial election. You've got to have somebody that will stand their ground but find common ground and reassure independent voters that they are not extreme."
Murphy explained that he registered as a Republican because of his father.
"My dad's a Republican, so I registered as a Republican because he's my best friend and mentor," Murphy said. "After the Iraq war when we were being lied to as a country, I got very angry. After cleaning up millions of gallons that were spilled into the Gulf after the oil spill and continuing to hear more calls for drilling offshore, I was frustrated. So not only did I change parties, but I decided to do something about it."
But he acknowledged that the attacks could affect voters.
"The negative attacks that are being thrown is unfortunately what is bringing down the turnout," Murphy said. "The negativity, the name-calling, the finger-pointing, the bad-mouthing is not democracy. This country was built on hope, on optimism, on coming together, on cooperation. That's what makes this country so unique and we've got to get back to that."
Grayson laughed off Murphy's endorsements.
"None of these people can vote in Florida," he said with a smile. "That means Patrick picked up zero votes today."
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is also a Broward County congresswoman, wants Murphy and Grayson to play nice, but she said whoever the nominee is will be OK.
"I'm hoping that the candidates will stick to the issues," she said. "Even if there's some bumps and bruises along the way, we'll come back together."