Charlie Crist’s comeback in Florida: Six takeaways

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It’s been years in the making, but it’s still shocking on some level for people who have been watching Florida for a while. Charlie Crist, the once-vaunted Republican governor who was VP material for John McCain and actively courted by the RSCC, is now the official standard bearer of the state’s beleaguered Democratic Party. As Crist himself said at a church stop in Miami Garden last weekend, “I’ve seen the light and I am a Democrat. A Florida Democrat! Praise God!”

Here are some thoughts on tea leaves we can read into for November:

  1. Democratic turnout was disappointing

    While neither primary was in doubt, just 833,000 Democrats voted in their party’s primary, compared to 948,000 Republicans voting in theirs. That suggests that Republicans are more enthusiastic about their nominee, Gov. Rick Scott. In a state as closely divided as Florida, Democrats should be concerned about this.

  1. Charlie Crist (Wikipedia)
    Charlie Crist (Wikipedia)

    This time, Crist crushed the intra-party rebellion

    While this primary wasn’t suspenseful in the closing weeks, there was always a feeling that it could get interesting, as the only lifelong Democrat in the race mobilized the party faithful to her cause. In particular, her supporters might have been fewer in number, but they were also dye-in-the-wool Democrats, the kind of people who vote in Democratic primaries come hell or high water. As it was, Rich could muster only 24 percent of the Democratic vote… but that still amounted to 214,000 votes. It will be essential for Crist to woo her supporters and heal any wounds from the primary so he can rely on a united Democratic base going forward.

  1. Rick Scott’s strength tonight is also his November weakness

    It’s natural to look at Scott’s primary victory tonight (he received 88 percent of the Republican vote, and over 200,000 more votes than the victorious Democratic nominee) and instantly conclude that he’s riding high. But the opposite is true: Scott’s strength among his own party suggests he may already have hit a ceiling in his support. Remember, his numbers have been stubbornly polling in the mid-to-low 40s, and the low-hanging fruit he can turn to in order to boost his reelection numbers (support among Republicans) has already been picked. Crist, by contrast, can bring hundreds of thousands more Democrats into his camp, with a respectful and reconciliatory outreach to Nan Rich and her Democratic supporters.

  1. George Sheldon (Campaign photo)
    George Sheldon (Campaign photo)

    George Sheldon’s victory means two strong Obamacare supporters will lead the Florida ticket

    The gubernatorial primary has rightfully dominated the headlines, but George Sheldon’s nomination to the position of Attorney General is important for Democrats in Florida and the nation. He’s shown a willingness to fight for Democratic principles, even framing his challenge to Pam Bondi as a reaction to her scorched-earth opposition to Obamacare back in the fall of 2013, when the legislation was probably at its nadir. The AG’s office is an important stepping stone in Florida politics, once held by Crist himself. If Sheldon can defeat Bondi, he’ll be removing a rising Republican star with a potential future in national politics. Of course, that’s a big “if.” Bondi starts with superior name recognition, the advantages of incumbency, and in particular a vastly superior fundraising network. But this could be a down-ballot race to watch.

  1. There was low turnout… but an important sign of Florida’s political transformation

    There are two counties that have amazed longtime political observers in Florida with their rapid swing towards Democrats: Orange County and Miami-Dade. Miami-Dade in particular has astonished analysts, giving Obama an eye-popping margin of 139,000 votes in 2008 before shattering its old record to give him an electoral route in the form a a 208,000-vote margin in 2012. Observers who wondered how he could win Florida by 74,000 votes despite losing more ground among white voters throughout the state needed to look no further than Miami-Dade’s transformation.

    Generally speaking, Democrats have been improving their margins in Miami-Dade by some 70,000 votes every four years. Crucially, the trend seems to be continuing, as Crist has received 5,000 more votes in Miami-Dade tonight than did Alex Sink in 2010, despite facing a challenger with deep roots in South Florida. This is potentially a game-changing statistic. Remember, Scott only prevailed by 64,000 votes in 2010. That margin would be completely wiped out by Miami-Dade’s continued drift towards Democrats, which tonight’s results strongly hint is still unfolding. In fact, if I were a Republican strategist, I’d be looking at the numbers out of Florida’s most populous county not with concern so much as horror. If things keep going this way in Miami-Dade, the county could become to Florida what Philadelphia is to Pennsylvania: an electoral black hole where statewide Republican dreams go to die.

  1. Nan Rich (Senate portrait)
    Nan Rich (Senate portrait)

    This is an undignified ending for Nan Rich

    Though I’ve been pulling for Crist, it’s hard to look at tonight’s results and not feel for team Rich, at least a little. The Broward state lawmaker ran a shoestring campaign, hitting the trail for over a year, only to get clobbered by a recent Republican in her party’s primary. To rub salt on the wound, she lost her home county, Broward, by a 40,000-vote margin. That has to be soul-crushing.

    That being said, it’s onward to November! Rich has already said she would support the Democratic nominee, and she can be very helpful in lending her efforts to working to ensure a unified base.

In summary, a pretty amazing night, expected as the results were. Crist’s change of fortunes have been Shakespearian – you just can’t make this stuff up. Of course, the question is whether this is all just a sunset glow for the forever-tanned ex-Gov, or if his glory days are still ahead of him. In the meantime, I think we can expect a race that has more than a few curve balls and surprises along the way, not to mention a potential photo finish, in good Florida style.