One of the most influential people in Florida’s last half century of politics passed away on Monday. Tom Slade, more than any other single man is responsible for the political climate Floridians live in today. The lasting and permanent Republican majorities in the state of Florida were built largely by him, with deputies implementing his vision and understanding his view of candidate recruitment and positive messaging. Under Slade, the Republicans went from a permanent minority made up largely of country club types and migrants from the Midwest, to a party that represented people of all stripes and all regions in Florida.
Slade was first elected to the State House as a Democrat from Jacksonville in 1962 but by the time he jumped to the Senate in 1966 he had switched parties ahead of many others in the south. The hard-charging Slade eventually became the architect of Republican majorities, moving the party beyond its very niche base.
In the late 1960’s political prognosticators believed Florida was quickly shifting to the Republican column. But the Democratic landslide elections of 1970, 1972 and 1976 moved the state further into the Democratic column than it had been in the mid 1960’s. By 1982, the Democrats held 32 of 40 State Senate seats, every Cabinet office and 89 of 120 House seats, a significant gain from even the mid 1970’s.
But by the late 1980’s the Republican were on the move again and with Slade as party chair in the 1990’s the GOP flipped both houses of the legislature and the majority of the Cabinet. By 2002, the GOP had achieved complete dominance in state politics, similar to the numbers the Democrats enjoyed two decades earlier.
Slade’s accomplishments changed this state. In 1997, he attempted to bring his brand of big tent Republicanism to the national level. But Slade’s candidacy for RNC Chairman was unsuccessful, defeated by the more ideological Jim Nicholson. Had Slade become RNC Chairman at that time it entirely possible the GOP would have built a softer, gentler image that created a permanent national majority.
Instead, the Republicans built a party based around fringe thought and ideological purity. The result has been a near lock for the Democrats in the electoral college and a party whose image is damaged among younger voters.
Tom Slade may have forever changed the fortunes of the national Republican party. We will never quite know.
His passing on Monday ends an era in Florida politics.