Florida Democrats have a lot to be hopeful for. The state party is coming into this year’s elections two years after the 2012 cycle turned out to be one of their most successful campaigns in Florida’s political history. The big story was the presidential result, where Barack Obama was powered on by an explosive Latino vote to become the first Democrat since FDR to carry Florida twice.
But the lower-profile results were just as encouraging. All across the board, the GOP lost ground as presidential-level turnout washed away a handful of Republican state lawmakers and congressmen. For longtime political observers in Florida, the question is no longer what Florida Democrats can do to survive. The real question is whether or not they can build on this momentum, or see it evaporate in a midterm election with miserable turnout.
Because Democrats in Florida have a problem. It’s a problem they suffer from at a national level, but it’s more acute in a southern state where their coalition is especially reliant on minority voters. It’s a problem that has led to total Republican dominance at the state level since 1998. It’s a problem that’s cost the party 16 of the last 22 statewide elections, and in 2010 it even allowed a GOP candidate whose company had been fined over a billion dollars for defrauding Medicare to win the governor’s mansion in this senior-heavy state where Medicare is sacred.
The problem for Democrats is that the groups of voters that form the core of their support — young people and minorities especially — are far less likely to vote in midterm elections that lack the excitement of presidential contests.
The turnout gap was acknowledged by President Obama himself at this year’s winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee. “A lot of Democrats don’t vote during midterms,” President Obama said. “We just don’t. Young people, African-Americans, Latinos — we just, often times, don’t vote during midterms.”
The numbers in Florida reflect this phenomenon. In 2012, 76 percent of Black voters turned up at the polls, while in the 2010 midterms just two years before, only 42 percent of eligible Black voters cast ballots. The turnout drop was also severe with young voters and Latinos, costing Democrats precious percentage points in voting totals down the ballot — all in the midst of a gubernatorial race that was decided by just over a percentage point.
Republican turnout during midterms decreases as well. But the drop-off is far less severe for the GOP then it is for the Democratic base, resulting in a midterm electorate that is far older, whiter, and more conservative than the presidential electorate.
In a state that elects its Governor and most of its state lawmakers during midterm elections, this trend has been political gold for Republicans, allowing them to claim not just the governorship, but every other statewide elected position and solid majorities in the state legislature, in a state that twice voted for Barack Obama.
If Governor Rick Scott manages to win in November despite his low approval ratings, he will have this enthusiasm gap to thank for his political survival. And because the GOP is all but assured to retain its control of the state legislature this fall, Scott’s reelection would secure another four years of GOP domination in Florida that’s already stretched out for 16 years.
He’ll just have to get past one ex-Republican first.
Former Governor and recently-converted Democrat Charlie Crist has managed to qualify for the ballot in Florida’s Democratic primary. He will be facing South Florida lawmaker Nan Rich for the right to take up the Democratic mantle for this year’s gubernatorial election. With less than two months before the August primary, he commands a double-digit lead in primary polls and the support of much of the Democratic establishment. He has so far declined to debate Rich, depriving her long-shot bid of free media exposure as he marshals support and campaign dollars to prepare for what will be his sixth statewide election.
If Crist is successful this November, it will cap what is already an incredible political odyssey. Five years ago, the perennially tanned Crist was a Republican governor with approval ratings that would make any politician jealous — and were all the more incredible in one of the most bitterly polarized swing states in the country. A natural in retail politics, he was able to command support from more than 60 percent of Florida’s Republicans and Democrats for years. But his perceived centrism earned him enemies on the right, and the Republican who was so popular he could only be toppled by fellow Republicans became the most high-profile casualty of the Tea Party in 2010.
Now he’s on a mission to reclaim Florida’s top political job as a Democrat. And despite his Republican past, the majority of the state’s Democratic establishment has fallen in line to salute his candidacy, certain that the charismatic and likable ex-Governor with strong statewide name recognition is their best hope for political relevance in Florida.
There are still lingering concerns in the party’s rank-and-file concerning Crist’s core beliefs, as the supporters of his primary challenger Nan Rich are quick to point out. Rich herself has characterized herself at rallies and interviews as “a life-long Democrat” in a clear jab at her party-switching opponent.
But for the overwhelming majority of Florida’s Democrats, the concern is to win.
“Let’s keep in mind just how deep a hole the Florida Democrats have been in and have been in for a very long time,” says Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, head of the Democratic National Committee. As a Democratic Congresswoman from Florida, Wasserman Schultz has born witness to the power of the Republican monopoly in the state, which passed a gerrymandered House map that sent eight more Republicans than Democrats to Congress even as President Obama won the state.
A Democratic Governor, she points out, could not only force a fairer congressional map that would swell the ranks of the party in Congress but could also raise the funds necessary to rebuild a state party that has been on a long and painful losing streak.
And so the political drought suffered by Florida’s Democrats makes the chance to nominate someone who could win far more important than the chance to nominate a candidate who is politically pure. This is the reason why, in all likelihood, the party is poised to nominate a former Republican to be their standard-bearer by a resounding margin this August. Charlie Crist has a brand in Florida: he’s well-known throughout the state, is a gifted and telegenic campaigner and has crossover appeal.
And Crist’s promise as a candidate isn’t just recognized by state Democrats. Several former Obama campaign workers, most famously including Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina, have descended on the state to join Crist’s campaign, sensing that he represents the best chance to place the governorship in Democratic hands at last.
The assistance is more proof for Democrats that the former Republican who endorsed President Obama’s reelection and crucially extended Florida’s voting hours in 2008 is a true Democrat at heart. For Republicans, it’s an irritating reminder of just how far their former golden boy has fallen.
“My prediction,” said Senator Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite who famously put Crist out of work in the 2010 elections, “is that by the end of this election, even Democrats will be embarrassed that Charlie Crist became a Democrat.”
It’s true that Crist’s unfavorable ratings have already begun to climb as he withstands an $18 million ad assault that will only intensify as November nears. Rick Scott’s formidable campaign war chest will spare no expense in damaging Crist’s reputation and candidacy and the multi-millionaire GOP incumbent has already seen the attack ads turn a double-digit Crist lead into a dead heat.
But whatever the outcome in November, Florida’s Democrats aren’t likely to be feeling the embarrassment Rubio predicts. Despair and deep depression maybe, if the unpopular Scott manages to survive on the strength of a well-funded campaign amid low turnout.
But it’s just as likely that there could be euphoria in Democratic circles this November, as Democrats finally pick the Republican lock on Tallahassee and claim a seat at the table. National Democrats would also have reason to celebrate on a night that might otherwise be bleak for their party. Ending Republican control in the nation’s third-largest state is no small thing — but the hurdles in place are very real.
For ten years, Charlie Crist was the candidate Democrats could never beat. Now the leadership is gambling that he’s the only candidate they can elect. From now until November, the rank and file will have to pray they’re right.