Can Dems Compete in GOP Region in '18?



Democrats in Sarasota seem energized after a successful city election and a solid first quarter for 2017. While making an effort to boost partisan enthusiasm year-round, new Sarasota Democratic Party Chair JoAnne DeVries steps into the 2018 election with enthusiasm. But Republicans anticipate a big summer for building resources, and say the region remains GOP-friendly outside a few select areas of presence for the other party.

As for Team Blue, the Sarasota Democratic Party (SDP) in the first three months of 2017 raised $143.696, nearly three times the $49,445 raised by the Republican Party of Sarasota (RPOS) over the same period of time. DeVries notes the first quarter of the year remains the strongest for Democrats because that’s when the Kennedy-King Dinner, the biggest local fundraiser for Democrats gets held. About $90,000 of the funding raised by the party this year came from that event, officials say. “But no question we have a lot of energized people,” says DeVries, who also has found a number of activists attending regular party meetings. DeVries says nobody in the party wants to see enthusiasm wane, and the local chapter for the party has continued online fundraising appeals around issues like health care.

History has shown Democrats tend to outperform Republicans early in the cycle thanks to when the major dinners get held. For example, SDP raised $148,580 in the first quarter of the 2016 election cycle, compared to $97,142 raised by RPOS. Presidential cycles always see greater fundraising as well, but while Democrats nearly met the first quarter totals from two years ago, Republican fundraising has yet to kick in.

RPOS chair Joe Gruters says that will change in June, when Team Red hosts its Statesman of the Year dinner. While the party has yet to announce the main speaker and recipient of the title award, Gruters says a statesman has been chosen and that local activists will likely be excited to attend the dinner. Past recipients include Gov. Rick Scott, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and, most notably, President Donald Trump, who won the award twice before his successful election in November to the highest office in the land. “We’ll catch up to and exceed the Dems,” says Gruters, who also notes that he personally could not raise money most of the spring because he now serves as a state representative and lawmakers cannot engage in fundraising during the legislative session.

Gruters also notes that Republicans in this area typically play defense. Outside the City of Sarasota, where Democrats hold a severe voter registration advantage, most county and regional offices remain in Republican hands. Among other things, that means the party directs donors to the campaigns of incumbent office holders rather than filling their own coffers. “When you look at what our candidates raise as a group, we completely trounce the Democrats,” he says. “We do a lot of the blocking and tackling but try and steer a lot of the big money to campaigns because we believe they are more efficient at spending it.” Indeed, in 2016, Democrats raised more over the entire two-year cycle than Republicans—SDP raised $449,397 to RPOS’ $321,699—but Democrats won just two partisan races in the area. 

But Democrats say an advantage in resources won’t go to waste. The party didn’t spend heavily but offered support to Democrats Jennifer Ahearn-Koch and Hagen Brody in the nonpartisan City Commission race and both handily beat Republican Martin Hyde. Come 2018, the party hopes a slate of credible candidates could make challenges in a number of offices. “We are starting to get organized, “ DeVries says. “We are working on candidate development and recruitment, and plan to get a good group to run next year. Voter registration remains a high priority, and we know precinct development is important. There’s lots going on at the grassroots level.”

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