National trends don’t always engulf Florida in off-year elections. Florida is again showing it can buck the trend this cycle as Charlie Crist, now a Democrat is pulling away from incumbent Republican Rick Scott in the Governor’s race despite the national mood being decidedly anti-Democrat. Assuming Crist wins, this would simply prove to be the latest off-year cycle where Florida bucked a national trend.
In 2006, then-Republican Charlie Crist won the Governorship by a healthy seven point spread over Democrat Jim Davis despite the national mood which was hardly favorable to the GOP. In 1998, the Democrats suffered a devastating defeat up and down the ballot in Florida, despite the national results being so poor for the Republicans that Speaker Gingrich resigned. This came four years after the 1994 election where Florida stood out from the rest of the nation.
In 1994, Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles won reelection by just over 70,000 votes statewide over Jeb Bush. Chiles won by combining the traditional Democratic counties of Leon, Alachua and Volusia, with close victories in a large number of rural north Florida counties and runaway wins in Broward and Palm Beach counties where turnout was exceptionally high. This was the traditional Democratic road map to victory from 1970 until 1996. Chiles was beaten along the I-4 corridor even in his home county of Polk, carrying just Pinellas (by an extremely narrow margin) and Volusia. The Governor was beaten throughout the traditional Republican “horseshoe” which at the time was anchored by the Orlando area. Chiles also in 1994 became the first person to win the Governorship without winning Hillsborough County in modern Florida history (Rick Scott would become the second in 2010). The 1994 election nationally was the single worst for Democrats since 1938. Overnight a long-standing congressional majority disappeared as did a dozen Governorship’s and several legislative chambers.
The 1998 election was complicated in Florida by a Democratic party divided by racial strife and ideology as well as Jeb Bush’s moderate rhetoric when compared to his 1994 loss. The racial issues which stemmed from the ouster of House Speaker (Minority Leader) designee Willie Logan carried into the general election with many African-American leaders including Logan himself backing Bush. The Democrats also found recruitment for legislative seats difficult despite having lost the House majority just two years earlier by a single vote. All of these factors led to an electoral wipe out and ushered in an era of Republican dominance that has seen the GOP hold wide House and Senate majorities ever since.
Given the national mood in 2006, it was expected that Democrats would have a real shot at winning the Governor’s Mansion. But following a bloody primary with Rod Smith, Congressman Jim Davis never really got his campaign into high gear. Attorney General nominee Skip Campbell ran a poor campaign and the Democrats actually lost Rod Smith’s State Senate seat. But the bright spots were Alex Sink’s CFO victory and the party picking up several House seats. Still 2006 was a cycle of missed opportunities for the party. Many of the problems stemmed from peculiar way in which the FDP was running at the time and the propensity of Democratic lawmakers, particularly in the Senate to trade away votes on potentially important campaign issues. Both Campbell and Smith were two of the worst when it came to this in the 2005 and 2006 sessions. Charlie Crist also had a remarkable amount of crossover appeal and that worked to help save Republicans in the state up and down the ballot.
(In the interest of full disclosure I was a paid consultant that worked several of these races in 2006)
This current election cycle is already proving to be different in Florida than in other states. The complete domination of state government by the GOP since the late 1990’s has fired up Democrats. As someone who was working in Democratic party politics the first few cycles after the Republican takeover many of us always saw the condition as temporary and felt a proper “restoration” would come when the FDP got itself together and the national party took an interest in Florida. But in fact the condition was largely permanent thanks to demographic shifts and the incredibly shameless way in which the GOP was able to use the levers of power and the purse-strings attached with power to build a virtual dictatorship reinforced by electoral dominance on the state level.
Will 2014 prove to be a game changer? Probably not, but it could be the start of a slide towards more parity in this state which is not only needed for progressives but to reboot a true citizen democracy in this state.