The only Florida Democrat holding statewide office endorsed a major fundraiser from Miami-Dade County for the chairmanship of the state party on Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, whose re-election to a fourth term in the Senate may rest, in part, on the success of the party organization over the next two years, threw his support to Stephen Bittel, a Coconut Grove developer who wants to succeed Allison Tant as chair of the Florida Democratic Party.
Democratic activists are scheduled to meet Saturday in Orlando to pick Tant's successor.
Other candidates running for the post include Alan Clendenin of Hillsborough County; Dwight Bullard, a former state senator from Miami-Dade; Lisa King, a Duval County committeewoman; and Leah Carius, chairwoman of the Osceola County Democrats.
In his statement, Nelson said while there were "several qualified" candidates for the job, Bittel "is the right person" to lead the party.
"I have known Stephen Bittel for over 30 years and believe he will be an extraordinary chair of the Florida Democratic Party," Nelson said. "Stephen has been a dedicated advocate for the principles of the Democratic Party for many years and is a leader who has the smarts and heart to unite the party in addition to implementing plans that will help rebuild the party from the ground up."
The leadership fight has been contentious, with two candidates, Clendenin and Bullard, being forced to move from their home counties to remain eligible for Saturday's vote.
Bittel's endorsement by the state's top Democratic official may help his candidacy, particularly with the party's establishment wing. But Bittel's election is still likely to face opposition from progressive factions that are calling for more dramatic change at the state party.
Nelson's endorsement helps with the vote count, as he controls 42 votes under the party procedures, although there are 1,204 total potential votes at stake in the election.