The final results are in: Democrat Amanda Murphy has beaten Republican Bill Gunter to replace the inimitable Mike Fasano by a margin of 322 votes despite Gunter’s massive support from the Tallahassee establishment and hard-right financiers the state over.
But is this a one-off thrill for Florida Dems owing to exceptional circumstances — the government shutdown, a cross-party endorsement from a beloved local fixture and a negative campaign that backfired, for instance? Or does it indicate that after years of ultraconservative leadership from GOP officials out of step with where their constituents really are on the issues, Florida is ready to regress (or rather, pro-gress) to the mean?
The future has yet to be written but if the Ds formulate a strong, cohesive platform and stick to it, the latter may well come to pass.
The race for HD-36
As Kartik mentioned Monday, special elections often take on disproportionate importance in the minds of election watchers and donors. Though it did not lead to a Republican Senate majority, Scott Brown’s victory to succeed the late Ted Kennedy in January 2010 was powerfully symbolic and augured to many the Tea Party wave that swept the nation later that year.
Amanda Murphy’s victory is like that too but has great tactical significance as well. Had Gunter won, he would have 1) moved Pasco politics to the right, and 2) immediately become a contender for Speaker in 2022. Murphy gives the Dems a foothold in a non-urban county that could be decisive in 2014, plus something even more precious: a solid addition to the statewide “bench” that activists frequently bemoan as thin. That is, particularly if she resists the temptation to accommodate Speaker Weatherford’s hardline agenda as a legislator, she’s likely to come up as a possible nominee for higher office down the road.
To put it in RPOF-ese, we dodged a bullet and gained ammunition for later.
Lest we forget, district 36 is a largely coastal district that has twice elected President Obama and which contains nearly 3,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. The fundamentals were there for Murphy, but it’s very nice to see the House Victory stay out of its own way, help finance her at respectable levels and show some messaging chops in a close race.
The dynamics in the Republican primary in House 36 were microcosmic of the excesses of one-party rule. Pasco Republican Executive Committee Chair Jim Mathieu was fairly conservative but had bucked the party line on a couple of key issues like expanding Medicaid — at little or no cost to the state — to cover Florida’s 1 million uninsured. In some ways he was a natural successor to Fasano, another moderate Republican, or at least what passes for one today, i.e. was pretty close to where his district is ideologically. Fasano and Mathieu have not always gotten along personally, but Fasano probably wouldn’t have endorsed his opponent and Mathieu stood a pretty good chance of besting Murphy.
Instead of letting those complex local dynamics play out Weatherford, Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran and the usual Republican fundraisers decided to take matters into their own hands and try to get their hand-picked man elected. Gunter was a relative political novice and by all accounts a lightweight when it came to policy. By skipping debates in favor of raising money 225 miles away in state capital, he exhibited the hallmarks of a classic insider waiting to happen.
The anti-Fasano robocalls and misleading mailers we saw are further indicative of a Lee Atwater mindset that does not take voters seriously. People are starting to pay attention to what the Florida legislative majority is up to these days, and for them that’s bad news.
The race for Florida
If this tendency — establishment-connected ideologues prevailing over moderates in Republican primaries — persists in the 2014 legislative election cycle, there are at least a dozen seats there for the taking by a disciplined, coherent Florida Democratic Party that offers a stark contrast and a substantive legislative program on which their candidates can run.
Murphy’s (well-earned) victory and the circumstances around it set the stage for a challenge not only to Republicans in the Legislature but to statewide officers as well. Governor Scott is obviously in deep trouble but I believe Floridians are in the mood for pulling up the fatuous GOP establishment from the roots, provided they are granted viable alternatives. Pam Bondi in particular could be vulnerable, as she constantly postures in the media for higher office and is heavily identified with the Tea Party strain of Republican politics that will only grow less popular as the gridlock in D.C. wears on. Perhaps even Adam Putnam might lose his first election if faced with a united front and a credible candidate.
More on this later. For now, congratulations to Amanda Murphy and the activists and volunteers that allowed her to turn HD-36 Democratic for the first time in many years.