Despite Competitive Primary, Sheldon and Thurston Aren't Catching Fire
Around the State
Despite being on the undercard, the battle between George Sheldon and Perry Thurston to see who challenges Pam Bondi is the most competitive statewide contest coming up in the August primaries. It’s certainly shaping up to be closer than the Democratic gubernatorial primary between Charlie Crist and Nan Rich.
But, despite how close it could be, the attorney general primary’s been a yawner so far. That reflects how much of an uphill climb it will be for either Sheldon or Thurston to beat Bondi in the fall. It’s also a reflection of the two candidates, since neither of them is exactly a breath of fresh air in Florida politics.
Sheldon has been on the political stage for decades in Florida, but whenever he’s auditioned for a larger role he’s failed miserably.
Starting off as an aide to Reubin Askew, Sheldon was elected to the Legislature and was deputy attorney general under Bob Butterworth. When Charlie Crist named Butterworth to head up the Department of Children and Families, Sheldon was once again his deputy but eventually moved to the top spot there. In recent years, Sheldon had been in Washington as a member of the Obama administration, serving as acting assistant secretary for children and families in the federal department of Health and Human Services.
Despite his impressive background, Sheldon has failed when he has sought higher office. The contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida is still synonymous for being a close race, but Crist had no problem dispatching Sheldon in the same election, beating him by 7 percent to be state education commissioner in 2000. Two years later, Sheldon ran for Butterworth’s job but he came in third behind Buddy Dyer and Scott Maddox in the Democratic attorney general primary. Even as late as 2010, Sheldon was talking about running for governor as an independent but ultimately decided against entering the race.
Currently leading Democrats in the Florida House, Thurston is, besides being in the attorney general race, also running for the state Senate seat currently held by Chris Smith who faces term limits in 2016. While the move makes sense since Democrats generally have more influence in the Senate than the House, it’s not exactly a sign of optimism for his chances against Bondi that Thurston has opened -- and kept -- a Senate account for 2016 even if he isn’t raising money for it.
Thurston doesn’t have Sheldon’s experience in running state and federal agencies or serving as deputy attorney general. But Thurston’s political credentials far exceed Sheldon’s. Thurston has a geographic base in Broward County, the second most populated county in Florida. Democrats need to turn out voters there if they want to defeat Rick Scott in 2014. By running against Bondi, Thurston could help pump out Broward County Democrats for Crist.
Considerably younger and certainly more dynamic than Sheldon, Thurston has never hesitated from taking the fight to Republicans. Thurston has his vulnerabilities, to be sure, including suggesting the possibility of higher taxes when he met with Rick Scott early in the governor’s term, but he makes more sense for Democrats than Sheldon who tried to run for state office twice before and underwhelmed both times.
Sheldon has been far busier than Thurston so far in the campaign since he wasn’t tied to Tallahassee during the legislative session, but he is blowing through his cash too quickly. By the end of last week, Sheldon had raised almost $251,000 but spent almost $249,000 of that. Thurston has brought in $143,500 but only spent around $48,500 of it, giving him a cash advantage in the final weeks before the primary. Neither of them has been close to catching Bondi in the money chase.
So far, Sheldon and Thurston have ignored each other, keeping their fire directed at Bondi on same-sex marriage and other issues. But that will have to change in the weeks to come as the contest gets more competitive. Sheldon is starting to bring in endorsements and Thurston should follow suit in the days to come. They’re both getting more engaged, with Sheldon raising more than $30,000 so far in May and June and spending around $33,500, and Thurston bringing in more than $40,000 and going through $22,500 in the same period.
If this sounds familiar, Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg were in the same situation back in 2010 when they were both running in the Democratic attorney general primary. Both Gelber and Aronberg served in the Senate together, hailed from South Florida and generally didn’t mix it up until the final weeks, when both of them launched attacks. Gelber won the nomination, only to lose to Bondi by a double-digit margin.
As Sheldon and Thurston quietly muddle through the weeks to come, out of the spotlight, they’ll eventually have to fire a few rounds at each other. In the meantime, neither has shown any signs of being a threat to Bondi in the general election. Whoever wins the primary will have to show much more energy and fundraising abilities than they have so far to make this a competitive race.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.