TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Democratic Party chairman resigned Friday in shame. A Republican state senator faces possible expulsion for sexual harassment. The state Senate’s top Democratic leader abruptly stepped down after admitting an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.Even amid the flood of sexual misconduct revelations that have rocked state capitals across the country, the nation’s biggest swing state has lived up to its reputation for political drama and excess over the past month, with major implications for next year’s contested U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections — and the next presidential race.“Florida is on fire. And it’s not a controlled burn,” said John Morgan, a major Democratic donor, godfather to the state’s medical-marijuana initiative and wildcard possible candidate for governor.“It was already insane here,” Morgan said. “It’s like Florida just can’t get out of its own way.”The biggest shock to the system unfolded Friday when the state’s Democratic Party chair, Stephen Bittel, quit after POLITICO Florida reported numerous women and men complained he created an uncomfortable work environment for young women, from leering at them and trying to persuade them to fly on his private plane to using a stress-relieving squeeze-ball shaped like a naked breast.Bittel’s resignation was a major blow to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat – who spent political capital on his friend and longtime donor to become chair of the state party in a bitterly contested race this year. Also backing Bittel was U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The former national party chair had made Bittel a top party financier, having hosted President Obama and Vice President Biden at his home in the past.In sync with Nelson, Bittel set about reorganizing the state party from the ground up, believing that President Trump’s surprise win in November was partly the result of a lack of grassroots engagement fueled by big-money donors. Nelson, one of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats in 2018, admitted to reporters he was nervous about his expected campaign against GOP Gov. Rick Scott, a two-term multimillionaire with decent poll numbers and a penchant for high-dollar fundraising.With Bittel at the helm, the state party worked closely with grassroots groups and unions and recently won two crucial standalone elections — a special state Senate race in the Miami area and a mayoral race in St. Petersburg — that gave the long beleaguered party a sense of momentum, even though Bittel fell well short of raising the big sums he promised.Now there’s a vacuum — and Democrats aren’t sure who can replace Bittel.Republicans are gloating.“To win those two last races, the Democrats took on a second mortgage for the house, took out an extra loan on the car and pawned their dog. Now they’re broke and they don’t have the guy who helped them win,” said Nelson Diaz, the chair of the Republican Party in Miami-Dade County.With Bittel gone, Diaz said, it’s unclear how the Democrats can find a chair who can contribute his own cash, get others to do the same and work closely with campaigns and outside groups. Diaz did note that Nelson will be able to rely more on national Democrats to fill the holes of the state party but the statewide candidates for governor, attorney general, state chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner will feel the sting from the loss of Bittel’s financial and organizational expertise. “These types of issues being on the front lines does create disorganization within party structures,” said incoming state Senate President Bill Galvano, a Tampa-area Republican who is leading 2018 Florida Senate GOP races. “When you have constant movement like this it makes it more difficult to focus, to fundraise and to strategize for upcoming election cycles.”Two of the recent scandals — involving former state Senate budget chairman Jack Latvala and incoming Democratic leader Jeff Clemens —caused chaos in the Florida Senate in recent weeks. The drama threatens the stability of the upcoming legislative session, a stage that ambitious politicians in both parties use to showcase their policy priorities and messaging in a prelude to the campaign trail.Not only is Scott hoping to make his final legislative session a hit, Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is expanding his presence in Tallahassee as he claims the mantle of front-runner in the Republican race to succeed Scott. House Speaker Richard Corcoran is expected to run against Putnam as well.Latvala has already announced his own bid for governor, but Republicans say the Tampa Bay-area Republican has little chance now that he’s under investigation after POLITICO Florida reported sexual harassment allegations against him from six women. He has now been stripped of his powerful post as Senate budget chief and could face expulsion from the Senate.Latvala’s close friend, Clemens, resigned Oct. 27 after admitting an extramarital affair with a lobbyist, further depleting the Democrats’ thin ranks in the Florida Senate.“I think the overall feeling is that the investigations and rumors swirling around Tallahassee are going to have an impact on session, and the legislature could have trouble accomplishing its goals, and that could have implications on 2018,” said Nick Iarossi, a Republican lobbyist and fundraiser, who has raised money for the likes of Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.“I think it will be a more challenging session than in year’s past,” he said.Underscoring that dynamic is a “who’s next” cloud that hangs over Tallahassee, and to a larger degree Florida’s entire political landscape. The January start of the regular legislative session will kick-off with a list of powerful members, mostly in the state Senate, rumored to have their own as-yet-unrevealed sex scandals.“Everyone I have talked to in the process is waiting on the next shoe to drop,” said one veteran Democratic fundraiser.“Will there be a quorum in the Senate for the start of session?” he joked.That speculation is deeply ingrained in the minds of some of the state’s largest special interests and donors, who are suddenly leery of cutting a big check to the next senator to embroiled in a sex scandal. And if national donors become spooked by Florida’s political dysfunction, it could crimp what was expected to be a huge flow of outside cash into Florida races. During the 2014 election cycle, the last midterm election, contributions from Washington alone to state candidates and committees totaled nearly $70 million.Scott’s state political committee, however, has never slowed, spending millions on campaign-styled ads, polling and consultants. Last week he outlined a $87 billion budget — the largest in Florida history — packed full of policy goodies that appeal to almost every Florida constituency and special interest group. A dysfunctional legislature could make securing those wins more difficult for the governor ahead of a race against Nelson.Though a Florida legislature bogged down in controversy could strip ambitious politicians of campaign trail talking-points, some doubt the scandal that’s the subject of constant chatter among Florida’s political class will impact average voters, especially after President Donald Trump won the White House after a campaign full of sexual harassment allegations.“I think voters are not shocked when big national figures act like this,” said a veteran GOP operative. “All you guys have been doing is putting a face to what they are already feeling.”Whatever the impact, the 2018 election is a likely preview of the 2020 presidential election, said Brian Ballard, a top Republican fundraiser and lobbyist who used to count President Trump as one of his clients.“The governor’s mansion doesn’t guarantee you’ll win the presidential race in Florida, but it helps,” Ballard said.The last time Democrats won the governor’s mansion was in 1994. And the party’s political fortunes soon deteriorated so badly that today they’re in the minority in the Florida legislature, hold a minority of the state’s 27 congressional seats and control none of the five statewide-elected seats based in Tallahassee. A Democratic gubernatorial win next year would probably help the party fundraise more and pick up more seats. It would also give the Democrats veto power over congressional maps that are set to be redrawn after 2020.Keith Frederick, who worked with and polled for Florida Democrats since 1979, said the loss of Bittel and the hijinks in Tallahassee might do the most damage to voters already turned off by politics. “It reinforces the notion that lobbyists and politicians are just screwing around — literally,” he said.Bittel’s predecessor, Allison Tant, said the party should be concerned about losing momentum, but the loss of Bittel at the party or the Senate’s Democratic leaders resignation are easy to overcome.“There’s not a problem with the Democratic party that a great candidate can’t fix and we have a lot of great candidates,” Tant said. “But yes. This is insane. Florida is just insane these days. It’s nuts.”One Democrat who’s not so sure about the quality of the Democratic field is Morgan. He’s weighing whether to run for governor and frets that the current crop of his party’s candidates haven’t “caught fire.” The loss of Bittel is another setback, he said, even though Bittel probably deserved to go because so many women said they found him too “creepy” to be around.“If being creepy is a disqualifier, almost no one would be holding office in Washington or Tallahassee,” Morgan said. “Washington is showbiz for ugly people and Tallahassee is the minor leagues compared to D.C.”
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