TALLAHASSEE -- Before Tuesday, Florida Republicans had the wind at their back — record amounts of special interest money, a veto-proof majority in the Legislature and unbridled power all over the state.
But the party’s muscle flexing appeared to backfire and the special interest money, this time, did not translate into landslide victories. Voters delivered a series of election night losses for Florida’s power party. President Barack Obama was running ahead of Mitt Romney in Florida. Legislature-backed amendments were mostly defeated. The GOP drive to remake the Supreme Court failed and the Republicans lost their supermajority in the House and Senate.
Even the projected future speaker of the House — one of the most moneyed and powerful Republicans in the state — is in danger of losing his seat to an underfunded political neophyte.
“Florida sent a clear message to us as legislators that they are not pleased with the direction we’re taking them,” said former Senator and Representative-elect Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican. “I think a message was sent [Tuesday] night to the Legislature, and to Gov. [Rick] Scott.”
Led by Scott, the Legislature has tacked sharply to the right in the past two years, passing or pursuing measures backed by the tea party and the business lobby, while slashing funding for schools and social programs.
Voters, in turn, moved the opposite direction Tuesday, throwing out as many as five GOP incumbents from the Legislature, and swinging several open seats to Democrats. Projected future House Speaker Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, appears to have lost a razor-thin race despite outspending his little-known opponent more than 7-to-1. The race is likely headed for a recount, but Democratic challenger Mike Clelland led by 37 votes as of Wednesday.
Republicans still came out far ahead, with more than 100 of the 160 legislative seats.
But Democrats — marginalized in Florida state politics since the late-1990s — spent the night rejoicing their modest gains in the Legislature, as well as Congressional upsets and the reelection of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Obama.
"Each time you improve your performance, resources follow,’’ said Rod Smith, chair of the Florida Democratic Party. "We’ve got to show success before we gain in resources."
In some ways, Tuesday’s results were a pivot toward equilibrium. No other state in the country has such a massive chasm between the party makeup of its electorate and its Legislature.
Registered Democrats in Florida outnumber Republicans by more than 400,000, but the GOP dominates the state Capitol, occupying 100 percent of the Cabinet and a veto-proof 68 percent of the Legislature before Tuesday.
A huge money advantage and the power to shape the state’s legislative districts has favored the Republicans, who have controlled the governor’s office and the state Legislature for nearly 15 years.
Donors poured more than $75 million into the Republican Party and GOP lawmakers’ personal committees this cycle, easily tripling what Democrats raised.
Republican leaders say the Democrats’ gains were, in part, a result of once-a-decade redistricting that had to be done without bias toward a particular party.
“We knew they would be tough,” incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said of the races that flipped to Democrats. “People wanted fair and competitive districts, and that’s what we gave them.”