Unfortunately I have been busy the past several days so I have not gotten around to posting anything new since last Wednesday or commenting on a thread that developed on one of my historical posts over the weekend. The debate on the “Snapshot of Florida Politics in 1979” posting devolved into little more than several people blaming Civil Rights for the fall of the Democratic Party in Florida.
As someone who counts southern history and politics as one of my long-term primary interests and has seen attitudes on race shift in my lifetime while I have also seen the partisan allegiance of many in rural Florida change over the just the past 15 years.
In 1996, when I campaigned for the Clinton/Gore campaign in counties like Gilchrist, Lafayette, Dixie, Madison and Taylor we still had a base of support among rural Democrats who had disagreed with but yet had accepted Civil Rights as reality. At that point in time Democrats could still win in the rural south (as evidenced by the number of legislative seats we held in rural North Florida and our control of every legislative chamber in the South outside of Florida and Tennessee) and yet Civil Rights had been in place for thirty years.
While it is true most Florida Democrats rejected Civil Rights in the 1960s, and even into the early 1970s (more on that shortly) the greatest era of Democratic domination in the state post Civil Rights era occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Republican gains in the legislature which had occurred in that angry period about Civil Rights in the late 1960s were reversed. In fact Democrats had more House and Senate seats after the 1982 election than in 1968, despite the domination Republicans were demonstrating in Florida’s Presidential elections.
Florida Democrats without the influence of moderate groups like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) had bounced back running on good government, open government, environmental protection, economic empowerment and competence. Republicans by contrast were stuffy country club elites and even though Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and later George Bush won the state largely due to a backlash on race (the issue of crime which was highlighted by Republicans in this era was in my opinion directly related to race and was also very effective in southeast Florida among alleged “liberals” ) this did not translate on the state level where the GOP in some cycles left more seats unopposed than seats they actually seriously contested.
However, by 1994 the Republicans were well organized and ready to capture the state. What happened? I attribute the switch to the GOP in this state more to the migration of northerners concerned about taxes and other economic issues as well as “crime” something Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist exploited than to a shift in the south due to racial attitudes. Crime I do consider to be a racial issue in how it was framed but it worked to move NORTHERN migrants to the GOP column not native Floridians/Southerners. Jeb Bush spoke for these northern migrants as he was himself a carpetbagger who in 1994 showed a total lack of understanding or depth about our state when compared to native son Lawton Chiles. In time, Bush gained a greater grasp of Florida issues but in 1994 he was essentially running a carpetbagger campaign aimed to win suburban votes and those of religious conservatives.
While northern migration into Pinellas, Orange and Broward counties had made Florida the most Republican southern state by 1960 on a relative scale, like the rest of the region it remained Democratic. Claude Kirk’s 1966 Gubernatorial win and Ed Gurney’s 1968 race baiting US Senate campaign that defeated Leroy Collins gave the GOP two statewide officials and in the eyes of most national observers meant Florida was shifting to the Republicans. Also that year the GOP numbers peaked in the State Legislature. It would be twenty years before the Republicans would win as many State Senate seats and twenty four years aided by the first voting-rights act influenced reapportionment before they would win as many State House seats.
In 1968, Florida Democrats and Republican alike were so concerned about race that when the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was pushed by President Johnson following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., only two Floridians in Congress (the liberal icon Claude Pepper and fellow Miamian Dante Fascell) voted for the legislation. Both US Senators and the other ten House members from the state voted “no” on the bill which guaranteed fair housing practices. Pepper had been in 1964 the only member of congress from east of Beaumont, Texas and south of the Kentucky/Tennessee border to vote for the Civil Rights Act. But in the 1960s, Miami was more of a northern city than a southern one, routinely giving large margins to national Democrats and rejecting George Wallace. It was the only place in the state with a true liberal streak in those days.
I suppose what I am trying to argue here is that while a racial backlash occurred in the late 1960s against the Democrats leading to Kirk and Gurney’s wins as well as George Wallace carrying a majority of Florida counties in 1968 (more on that later in the week) the party recovered in the 1970s and actually settled into a comfortable majority status. In the 1980s liberalism spread north from Miami into Broward and Palm Beach counties but still at a Presidential level, national Democrats could not garner a large number of votes outside of African-Americans and the three southeastern Florida counties. Hillsborough and Duval Counties in particular were becoming more and more conservative so that by 1994, Lawton Chiles had to run up huge margins in Broward and Palm Beach counties while turning out rural north Florida east of Apalachicola River to survive what was a massive Jeb Bush victory up and down I-4 among northern migrants, suburban voters and Orlando area fundamentalists. On the national level, Richard Nixon won 73% of Florida votes by using “abortion, acid and amnesty” against George McGovern and while Ronald Reagan and George Bush racked up impressive victories in the state during the 1980s, the 1990s saw a the emphasis of cultural issues in the state’s national elections begin to wane. Sure the GOP tried to play this card but in 1996 and 2000 they were unsuccessful.
Today’s Florida has large numbers liberals not only in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale metroplex but also in the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas as well as a growing number in Jacksonville. Crime and taxes the wedge issues used by Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s to flip this state aren’t as prevalent as they once were. To use the logic of the 1992 book Chain Reaction to apply to the new Florida is ill advised. When this book was written Democrats had lost 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections and the racial backlash against the party was seen as obviously in white northern suburbs as is in the rural south. Now we are in a place where Democrats have essentially carried Florida in 4 of the 5 last elections (regardless of your view of 2000, it cannot be argued that more Floridians INTENDED to vote for Al Gore than for George W. Bush) and the new playing field has a completely different set of issues than yesterday.
I will concede that since the late 1990s, North Florida has realigned in favor of the GOP largely on racial lines, and that the Presidential election returns from 2008 and 2012 show race based voting patterns between the Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers outside of Tallahassee. However, in the rest of the state, race is no longer a major issue.
I found the discussion in the thread to be appropriate for the 1970s and 1980s but out of place in 2013. Perhaps for those in rural North Florida it is still pertinent but to the rest of the state it is a relic of the past.