Republican US Senator Ed Gurney elected in a 1968 upset over Leroy Collins was the first GOP US Senator elected from Florida since Reconstruction a hundred years earlier. This is one
Gurney proved to be a disgrace to the state and one of many single-term statewide elected GOP officeholders of the period between 1966 and 1990. No Republican in Florida was reelected in a statewide election until 1994 – Gurney worked with Governor Claude Kirk to oppose William Cramer’s candidacy in 1970 for US Senate creating an irrevocable split within Florida’s minority party. Then Gurney was indicted in 1974 for influence peddling just months after he had been Richard Nixon’s only staunch defender on the Senate Watergate Committee – while the other Republicans on the Ervin panel had tried to be objective and eventually tilted against the President Gurney was Nixon’s leading man in the Senate. Gurney did not seek reelection and was eventually acquitted on all charges.
With the seat open and Watergate raging, the Democrats had a chance to regain the seat. A star studded field of candidates included State Senator Richard Pettigrew from Miami, who had been the first House Speaker of modern times from southern Florida, Mallory Horne who served as both House Speaker and Senate President and would later become a super lobbyist, Bill Gunter who represented an Orlando-area Congressional district and Richard Stone, the Secretary of State.
Pettigrew who was considered a liberal by most standards didn’t make the runoff with two moderates, Stone and Gunter facing off against each other. Stone won the runoff barely and faced Jack Eckerd in the November election. Eckerd, who had founded one of the nation’s drug store chains was filthy rich and based in Pinellas County. He had defeated Paula Hawkins easily in the primary.
Despite the Democratic wave, Eckerd ran close losing by two points to Stone who was ultimately helped it is thought by a third party candidate, John Grady who got 16% of the vote. Grady, running as a doctrinaire conservative probably pulled more votes from Eckerd than Stone, though we have no empirical evidence that confirms that.
Stone was Florida’s first Jewish Senator since David Levy Yulle. He compiled a moderate voting record in the Senate – voting for deregulation of gas and airline industry but also for the Panama Canal treaty and against the Kemp-Roth tax cut (which would become the basis for the Reagan tax cuts of 1981). His record was slightly more conservative than his fellow Florida Senator Lawton Chiles but to the left of several Florida Democrats in the House of Representatives. Stone was defeated for renomination by Gunter who then lost to Hawkins in the GOP wave of 1980, when Florida was Jimmy Carter’s worst southern state.
Despite being a Democrat, Stone’s moderate profile allowed him to serve ion various foreign posts under President’s Reagan and Bush.
Gunter’s 1980 defeat would be his second for US Senate but not his last. Serving as State Insurance Commissioner from 1976 to 1988, Gunter an insurance-friendly Democrat was defeated by the far more liberal Buddy MacKay in the 1988 Democratic runoff. MacKay then lost the General Election to Republican Connie Mack on military absentee ballots. MacKay was ultimately done in by Michael Dukakis’ poor showing in the state.
Since 1980, with the exception of a two-year period from 1986 to 1988 and a four year period from 2000 to 2004, the GOP has held at least one of the state’s two US Senate seats but have to this point in time never held both seats at the same time.