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Democrats reflect on Florida successes: seeds of rebuilding effort

Scott Randolph, a former state representative and Orange County Democratic chairman, stood before a crowd of 200 supporters Tuesday night and declared they had changed the swing in the crucial swing state county.

The central Florida county is the buckle in the I-4 corridor’s belt and had been a long-time Republican stronghold, but on Tuesday it was clear that tradition had ended. “We are the face of the I-4 corridor and we have won,’’ Randolph said, noting that Democrats not only won their state legislative seats but all important countywide seats.

Randolph, a former legislator who retired because of term limits, was elected Orange County tax collector on Tuesday night when he became a last-minute replacement candidate for the incumbent who died, Earl K. Wood. He remains a candidate for state Democratic Party chairman.

"This election is a referendum on a state legislature that is far out of step with the public,'' Randolph said. He blames "gerrymandered districts" and a Republican majority that "puts ideology before policy."

He said that voters' selective choosing of ballot amendments revealed how carefully they approached this election.

"The voters clearly read the ballot and choose amendments they believed would do the most good,'' he said. It also sends a signal to  the Republican-led legislature "which loaded up the ballot out of arrogance."

Randolph also said that turnout should end speculation that Democrats did not fire up their base. "There was no enthusiasm gap,"

He also believes that the critical factor for Obama's win in Florida was the Hispanic vote. 

"We had the numbers but we had to make sure that every Hispanic voter went out to vote,'' said Betsy Franceshini, Hispanic outreach director for the Florida Democratic Party. "It was a lot of hard work but we made it happen. We won."

Bruce Smathers, a Bill Nelson supporter from Jacksonville and former Florida secretary of state, said he watched as black leaders in his community turned the loss of the Sunday early voting day into a call to get out the vote the rest of the week.

"They called it Project Lemonade,'' he said. "They gave them a lemon and they turned it into lemonade. In 2008, they turned out the vote to make history, tonight they voted for pride."

In the state Senate, Democrats engineered the first net gain in nearly two decades with the help of redrawn districts and the success of Darren Soto in Orlando and Maria Sachs in Boca Raton. The party, however, was forced to pull back on a third race it had hoped to capture in Brevard County, where Republican Dorothy Hukill defeated Democrat Frank Bruno.

"I knew from Day One there were going to be a number of competitive races and, because of resource allocation, we were going to be limited by some of them,'' said Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith. 

He conceded that the assault on the three justices of the Supreme Court from the Republican Party was more talk than substance as the feared television campaign never materialized but the result was more than $5.5 million "diverted away from our candidates."

Smith added, however, that the success of the justices proved "it was money well spent because the court is a critical check on the balance of power."

The Democrats may have broken the super-majority in the state House and picked up seats in the state Senate, but the party still has a long recovery ahead to regain the strength it once had in Florida, he said. 

"Each time you improve your performance, resources follow,'' Smith said. "We've got to show success before we gain in resources."

About half a dozen firefighters from the Orange County Local 2057 arrived at the Democrats election night party at the Embassy Suites in Orlando in orange shirts after a day of sign waving. Andre Perez said voters sent a message that voters care about the middle class.

"The businesses put in the money but we put in the hard work,'' he said.