I’m somewhat surprised we have not gotten more commemorations because this week’s organizational session marked 20 years since the GOP captured complete control of the Florida Legislature. The Republicans captured a House majority on Election Day 1996 ironically as Bill Clinton was becoming the first Democratic Presidential nominee to carry the state in twenty years. The 61-59 GOP majority was paper thin and as soon the Republicans celebrated gaining a majority, cracks appeared in the party. Multiple Miami-area Cuban-American Republican House members led by Rep. Luis Rojas flirted with the idea of keeping the Democrats in power by defecting, claiming that Republican leader and incoming House Speaker Dan Webster was too conservative on social issues for south Florida voters. Ultimately, Webster was able to guarantee victory by getting several conservative Democrats to defect or promise to defect if he needed the votes. The GOP had captured the State Senate in 1994 by a 21-19 count and increased its majority to 23-17 in the 1996 election.
By the time the election of 1998 rolled around the GOP had increased its majority to 66-54 through party switches and special election wins. The Democrats had also shot themselves in the foot by replacing an African-American Speaker-designee Rep. Willie Logan (D-Opa Locka) originally with a white women Rep. Anne MacKenzie (D-Fort Lauderdale). By the time the backlash against MacKenzie and other white Democrats who had orchestrated the coup got too hot and the caucus put African-American Rep,. Les Miller (D-Tampa) in the top spot the damage was done. Many African-American leaders endorsed Jeb Bush for Governor and Logan and his supporters cast important votes with the GOP in the House over the next few years.
The GOP was feeling empowered and over in the Senate, future Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist, then a party-oriented Republican in the State Senate, instigated a massive investigation of the state’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry targeting the trial lawyers who took the case on as well as Democratic Governor Lawton Chiles and Attorney General Bob Butterworth. On the House side, ideological bills related to abortion, tort reform and school choice were passed and some made it to Governor Chiles desk and were ultimately vetoed.
By the time the dust had settled from the controversial 2000 Election the GOP had taken a 75-45 advantage in the House and 25-15 one in the Senate. The pattern of split-ticket voting became evident that day as several districts which were carried by Al Gore for President also supported Republicans for State House and State Senate. This pattern of split-ticket voting where Republicans perform better and better down ballot has become a staple of Florida elections. In 2014, Republicans carried sixteen State House seats that were won by Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist. Interestingly this phenomenon was evident in the 1980’s as Republican Presidential candidates cruised in the state but gave very little in coattails to GOP candidates down ballot.
The Republicans have now run the legislature for twenty years and few Democrats recall what it was like when the party was in power. Institutional memory has vanished on the Democratic side and many who would normally be loyal to the party have chosen to make money by lobbying for corporate interests and essentially becoming free agents in the process. What has resulted is a party with little in the way values or infrastructure – a disparate coalition of activists, pressure groups, disaffected former Republicans and corporatists using political influence to make money.
The GOP capture of the State House was twenty years ago and in terms of shifting the landscape in the state it was a momentous event from which the Democrats still have not recovered.