The fissures between Florida Democrats and their party's more liberal wing were exposed Monday when a progressive group said Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando would be a better Senate contender than the only big-name Democrat who has already declared his candidacy, Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter.
In a conference call with reporters, the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida said Grayson had been the preferred candidate among members in an unscientific poll.
"We've seen a real fight in Alan Grayson that we think is needed," said Susan Smith, the group's chairwoman.
Grayson is known as a liberal firebrand, while Murphy, who ousted Republican Allen West in 2012, is a centrist who at times has sided with Republicans (notably in supporting the Keystone XL pipeline).
"When he talks about Social Security and Medicare, Patrick Murphy sounds often sounds more like Paul Ryan than Elizabeth Warren," lamented Nancy Jacobson, a Democratic National Committee member from Orange County.
"Most of the time, he doesn't act like a Democrat at all," added Ernest Ciarrocchi of the South Shore Democratic Club.
National Democrats appear keen on Murphy's chances of winning in purple Florida if, as expected, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio announces a presidential bid next week.
But Smith argued a Democratic nominee will need the help of an excited base already disenchanted by last year's failed candidacy by Charlie Crist for governor. Crist was once a Republican. So was Murphy. Both their Democratic candidacies point to the party's slim Florida bench -- and to the fact that despite progressives' pleas, moderates know the liberal base is more likely to vote for them than for a Republican.
Smith and other progressives made repeated mention of liberal hero Warren, the Massachusetts senator, and derided "Wall Street Democrats." There was no mention of the pragmatist Hillary Clinton, the party's likely presidential nominee, who could face a similar enthusiasm gap as Murphy if party activists don't feel drawn to her eventual campaign.
A Grayson campaign is hardly certain, however. Smith insisted her group intends for there to be a "strong primary."
"You win elections by giving voters a choice, not by pretending to be something you're not," said Frank Day, a former Walton County Democratic committeeman. "Floridians like to elect a bold leader. Patrick Murphy is neither bold nor a leader."
Murphy's campaign said in a statement that progressive caucus misrepresented his record.
"Patrick Murphy is the Democrat that is going to help take back the Senate," spokesman Richard Carbo said. "That is echoed by the strong slate of Democrats around the state who are lining up to support his campaign. He's opposed any efforts to weaken Social Security, led over 200 members of Congress fighting to protect Medicare, and has been recognized as a Champion of the Everglades for his work to protect the environment. These are the Democratic principles Floridians want in their next U.S. senator."
Nothing highlighted the split among Democrats more than a telling moment toward the end of the conference call. Reporters were supposed to be asking questions, but instead another Democrat, Celeste Bush, got on the line. She's chairwoman of the Democratic Party in St. Lucie County, which Murphy represents, and she defended his congressional record.
"He wouldn't have won if he didn't support Social Security," she said, countering progressives' claims and noting the county's high number of retirees. "He's never voted to cut the program."
Smith thanked Bush for calling.
"We're going based on the things he said in the past," Smith said. "If he really wants to fight for Social Security, let's see him on the front lines now in the battle... We're looking for that kind of leadership."
This post has been updated to include Carbo's comments.