For years it felt like the Democrats were the only ones making tactical mistakes in Florida’s off-year election cycles. In 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 Democrats made more errors than Republicans allowing the GOP either to run away with victory after victory (1998, 2002 and 2010) or minimize losses (2010). However, this go-round it is the sheltered, arrogant and somewhat complacent Republicans in Florida making the bulk of errors.
Let’s start in the Governor’s race and work our way to the legislature. Republican bitterness, anger and pettiness over Charlie Crist’s party switch combined with the sense of entitlement the majority party has developed in this state has fueled a media campaign which has done as much to turn off cynical voters than to move support towards Governor Scott. While the Republicans were playing this game, the Democrats and progressive groups were getting organized on the ground level particularly in vote-rich southeast Florida, turning a typical Republican advantage against the GOP.
Rick Scott’s job numbers and its true impact on our economy, we have repeatedly disputed on this website. However, for voters, a digestible positive campaign on economic growth following the efforts of the GOP to define Governor Crist during the summer would have likely been more effective than the current media campaign. But Republicans in Florida, acting like a jilted ex-lover of Crist cannot stop with the petty, borderline slanderous attacks on his character and in the process have left Governor Scott with virtually no path to victory short of voter suppression.
Crist’s success should remind voters of 2006, when Jim Davis the Democratic nominee had a national wave behind him but could not dent Crist’s numbers. A disciplined and savvy politician, one of the best in a generation here in the Sunshine State, Crist’s appeal has survived countless bruising campaigns, accusations of being a “lightweight” in the 2000 Education Commissioner’s race, repeated mentions of failing the bar exam in 2002 and allegations of being a political operator in 2006. With this in context, the RPOF and its allies should have realized the efforts to slanders and besmirch Crist’s character and his record were always destined to fail.
In the State Senate and State House, the over-hyped expectations of a Republican sweep backed by GOP-leaning or supporting blogs were more than just positioning and media rhetoric. The GOP really believed they were about to sweep these races and allowed sympathetic writers to inflate numbers thinking it would cause a panic among Democrats. Save the reactions of some dissident Democratic legislators and malcontents within the party, this strategy backfired.
The Republicans who have long dominated the messaging in most Senate and House races have been caught flat-footed time and again as the Democrats now appear poised to minimize losses in the House and break-even in the Senate. This scenario seemed impossible in mid-August when we lamented the poor candidate recruitment in legislative races. But the Democrats have in the seven weeks since that article was published, run a disciplined and tight ship in House and Senate races, while the Republicans have been haphazard and have allowed their messaging to become generic and stale.
For years, when it came to State Legislative campaigns that Republicans had well-honed, poll-tested local oriented messaging carried forth by candidates in marginal seats, while the Democrats generally adopted rhetorical talking points and the mantra of “no” to everything happening in state government. But strangely, during this cycle the reverse is occurring with the GOP being hammered on local issues particularly in Pinellas County where both Rep. Dwight Dudley and Rep. Carl Zimmerman have turned around difficult races and are now sitting in very good shape.
In the State Senate, Ellyn Bogdanoff’s campaign against Senator Maria Sachs has been a dud to this point. Bogdanoff got in late, and adopted a mishmash of messaging which was designed to re-position the former legislator in this left-leaning district. But instead it has left Bogdanoff looking like someone desperate to regain elected office. Fears about the Republicans obtaining a veto-proof Senate have subsided thanks to this race even while Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St Petersburg) has seemingly pulled away in his reelection fight in the Democratic-leaning and Crist-backing SD-22.
The culture of cronyism in the Republican party has led to stale campaign strategy, a clear lack of enthusiasm among many activists which has been replaced by professional paid politicos doing much of the work of volunteers and everybody claiming a piece of the spoils because of previous work. Republicans having trouble with enthusiasm and volunteers. But it cannot be forgotten that the GOP enjoys substantial institutional advantages that often help to mask this “enthusiasm gap.”
When the post-mortem on 2014 is written, it will show that Florida Republicans failed to take proper advantage of the national mood and improving economic numbers and instead allowed the Democrats a route back to relevance in the state. This could set-up an interesting 2016, 2018 and 2020 where Republican institutional advantages begin to be chipped away and we develop a true two-party electoral system by the time the next reapportionment rolls around.