Political Hurricanes Continue to Strike in Ever-Pivotal Florida

Posted January 31, 2007 at 6:46pm

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — More than six years after the 2000 presidential recount, Florida remains a fast-growing, diverse and politically pivotal state. [IMGCAP(1)]

Last week, Out There assembled a panel of Florida politicos who attended a conference sponsored by the University of Florida’s Graduate Program in Political Campaigning: GOP consultants Roger Austin, Renee Dabbs and Adam Goodman; Democratic consultants David Beattie, Rich Davis and Jim Kitchens; pollster Jim Kane; political scientists Susan MacManus and Richard Scher; and political journalist Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times. Here is an excerpt of the conversation.

ROLL CALL: What trends in Florida politics are most striking to you?

KANE: The demise of the older voter. It’s been coming for a decade, but it’s really kicked into high gear. This is important for the parties because voters who are middle-aged and younger don’t show up at the rates seniors do, and it makes mobilization increasingly important.

MACMANUS: Florida Republicans are still superior at mobilizing voters. Younger African-American voters are the biggest problem for the Democrats. They’re just not getting them to the polls.

SMITH: In Florida, there was already a major Republican machine well before 2000, and every year it gets better.

GOODMAN: It’s never reflected in the polling, but it’s a tremendous disadvantage for the Democrats.

SMITH: Tom Slade, a former state Republican chairman, was honing voter lists and expanding information files long before Karl Rove made it fashionable.

KANE: And the Republicans have been centralized. The Democrats have relied on outside interest groups, and they were not getting all the right people to the polls. The Republicans usually started a year and a half out from the election putting people together for coffees and keeping in contact. Their system is still far superior.

MACMANUS: The state Democratic Party doesn’t have the support staff in place to compete. And there’s still a tension within the party between north and south Florida — the south still thinks it runs the show.

ROLL CALL: What other trends in the state are striking?

SCHER: The increasing importance of the 14 to 18 counties in the I-4 corridor [from Tampa-St. Petersburg to Orlando]. They account for 38 [percent] to 40 percent of registered voters in the state.

KANE: Voters in the corridor are younger and more suburbanite. They just don’t have strong partisan beliefs.

MACMANUS: They also mirror the state’s racial and ethnic mix, and its urban-suburban-rural mix.

ROLL CALL: Are non-Cuban Hispanic voters in play?

MACMANUS: The new Hispanic arrivals are very much up for grabs. The old timers from the Northeastern U.S. brought with them their Democratic registrations, but newcomer Puerto Ricans tend to be swayed by the individual campaign.

ROLL CALL: And the leanings of Cubans are changing, too, right?

DABBS: The fact is, you can’t count on Hispanics to be Republican anymore.

KANE: In the meantime, South Florida has developed a very large Caribbean vote, from places like the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Turks and Caicos. They come here with a strong political tradition — the English parliamentary system — and adjust very quickly to American politics.

ROLL CALL: Which Democratic presidential candidate could win this state in 2008?

GOODMAN: None.

MACMANUS: I think [Sen.] Hillary [Rodham Clinton] (D-N.Y.) could if the conditions were right.

SMITH: I think any of the major Democratic candidates could win.

KANE: I don’t agree. Look at the history of who wins Florida. Generally speaking, you have to have a base in the Southern U.S. To win Florida as a Democrat, you have to do well in the panhandle. You can’t do it with Broward and Dade [counties] alone. And you’re never going to get those panhandle people to vote for Hillary Clinton. Maybe [former Sen.] John Edwards (D-N.C.) could pull it off.

SMITH: In the panhandle, the Democrats basically need not to get absolutely shellacked. They have to get into the 30s, though they won’t be able to get much above 40. Maybe if you’re Hillary, you believe that you can replicate what you did to win the confidence of voters in upstate New York.

KANE: Yeah, but Pensacola ain’t upstate New York.

MACMANUS: If she can get black voters, young voters and non-college-educated working women to turn out, it’s not inconceivable.

DAVIS: Unfortunately, the first two of those groups are among the hardest groups of voters to mobilize.

ROLL CALL: Tell me a bit about the significance of the election of Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who portrayed himself as a moderate.

AUSTIN: He ran an absolutely flawless campaign, with an endless supply of money. He also had two horrible opponents [Tom Gallagher in the GOP primary and former Democratic Rep. Jim Davis in the general election]. Gallagher was a playboy who tried to become the candidate for evangelicals. And Davis was even more boring than [former Sen.] Bob Graham (D-Fla.).

DAVIS: It’s impossible to separate the notion of the flawless campaign with the endless money. His campaign was flawless because he had the money, and Jim Davis didn’t.

SCHER: If Democrats keep nominating stiffs and corpses who don’t raise money, they don’t have a chance in this state. All the Republicans have to do is keep doing what they’re doing.

SMITH: That said, Crist did not get nearly the margins that [two-term former Gov.] Jeb Bush (R) did. He underperformed.

AUSTIN: How much of that was because of the national Democratic trend?

SMITH: It’s true that he did virtually campaign as a Democrat.

ROLL CALL: What accounted for Jeb Bush’s popularity in the state?

MACMANUS: The hurricanes. He was consistent and acted boldly.

SCHER: He had cojones. He was never more impressive than then.

SMITH: Which is ironic for a guy who’s so suspicious of government.

ROLL CALL: Sen. Mel Martinez (R) is up for re-election in 2010. Does he have anything to worry about?

SCHER: Not if the Democrats continue to fail to recruit good candidates. As far as I can tell, there’s been no effort by the Democratic Party to identify a strong candidate for that race, or to position themselves to take on someone who could be vulnerable.

ROLL CALL: How is the disputed vote between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings playing here at this point?

GOODMAN: Jennings is clearly setting herself up for 2008, but probably in very bad form by continuing to make a big issue of it. I think she’s starting to look like a party crasher, not a party builder. Compare that to Buchanan. If you looked at his voting record so far this Congress, you’d say, “Holy shit! Vern is a Republican?” He’s been more in line with the Congressman from the district before [former GOP Rep.] Katherine Harris, Dan Miller (R) — a social moderate who won overwhelmingly, election after election.

DAVIS: She’s in a really tough spot, because she obviously feels like she has a strong case that her election wasn’t fairly conducted, but she also has to worry about pushing her case too far. And that’s balancing against the reality that the national Democratic Party doesn’t want to be accused yet again that they didn’t push hard enough in a disputed election.

ROLL CALL: How do you handicap the former Mark Foley (R) House seat?

GOODMAN: [Republican candidate Joe] Negron won by losing. There was no expectation that [his race against now-Rep. Tim Mahoney (D)] would be competitive, much less that close. He ran an effective, dignified campaign, and he won points within the party by taking on the assignment. The district is economically conservative and socially moderate, even liberal. Negron fits the profile. He was a leader in the state House, and his pull will mean something to voters. The winner in 2008 will depend heavily on who’s at the top of the ticket.

ROLL CALL: Is there any chance that the Democrats can take seats in fairly marginal districts, such as those held by GOP Reps. Tom Feeney and Ric Keller?

BEATTIE: Only if they’re open.

GOODMAN: Keller still won in a tough year for Republicans.

KITCHENS: We looked at the seat held by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) and decided not to target it.

GOODMAN: The next truly competitive district might be the seat held by [Rep.] Bill Young (R). For the others to be in peril, you’ll need more of a sea change.

AUSTIN: If he retires, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R) could be competitive. The sheriff of Marion County, Ed Dean, is a conservative Democrat who wins big.

ROLL CALL: The Democrats picked up six seats in the state House. Should we read anything into that?

SMITH: That was a factor of the national wave, and also shows that there were signs of a pulse in the Democratic Party. They recruited good candidates and targeted races well. There probably won’t be as many competitive races in 2008, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. They also elected someone to statewide office, Alex Sink as chief financial officer. That’s a giant step.

BEATTIE: Last year was the first that Democratic identification was higher than Republican ID on Election Day since 1994. Usually, Democratic identification is higher in January and lower on Election Day. I’m optimistic, because the Democratic Party has been so bad in recent years. Any time there’s a one-power government, there’s hubris. A moderate governor may split moderate and conservative Republicans, and Democrats can win on fiscal issues.

DABBS: I’m optimistic for Republicans. I think we saw what could be the worst year for Republicans across country, and the fact that we fared pretty well here shows that Floridians have different concerns. When 1,000 new people a day move in, you don’t know what will change.