Gov. Jeb Bush swept to a convincing reelection victory Tuesday, beating back an upstart rookie and rebuffing attempts by national Democrats to take out the president’s brother as a prelude to 2004. Bush became the first Republican governor in Florida history to win a second term, and will govern with unprecedented power thanks to GOP control over the Legislature and, after Tuesday’s victories, the entire elected Cabinet.
By midnight, with 98 percent of the vote in, Bush held a comfortable lead over Democratic challenger Bill McBride, the former Tampa lawyer who had risen from relative obscurity to upset former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in the primary.
The governor beat McBride by a wider margin than many experts had anticipated, given two years of political unrest following the 2000 presidential election and seething anger over Bush’s decision to roll back affirmative action in university admissions and state contracting.
And it came in an election that appeared relatively trouble-free, unlike the 2000 race that put his brother in the White House after a protracted legal battle and the September Democratic primary that took a week to settle.
Bush’s victory marked an enormous setback for both the Democratic Party, whose national chairman two weeks ago declared him the No. 1 GOP target in 2002, and the state’s labor movement, which had invested millions of dollars in McBride’s campaign.
“It’s done. We won,” the governor said to his famous parents, former President George Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, as he huddled over a laptop computer calculating election returns from an 18th-floor suite at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Miami.
“We did better than we thought we would,” he added.
By midnight, Bush appeared on his way to a victory even more resounding than his 55 percent to 45 percent win over Democrat Buddy MacKay four years ago.
He won his home county of Miami-Dade and kept the margin relatively close elsewhere in Democrat-rich South Florida. And McBride, the favored son of the party because of his more moderate record, fared poorly in North and Central Florida — including his home county of Hillsborough — where Democratic strategists had feared Reno would be roundly defeated had she won the primary.
In a victory speech shortly before 10:30 p.m., a hoarse Bush, introduced by his father, breathlessly zipped off what he regards as his first-term accomplishments and vowed: “There’s more, there’s so much more we need to do.”
With his supporters floating the word “mandate,” Bush did not promise the kind of sweeping changes that marked his first term. Instead, he pledged diligent attention to education, including an emphasis on reading, the economy, helping single-mothers and vulnerable children and cracking down on domestic violence.
He congratulated McBride for running a “hard race,” but, added, “now is a time to unite our state.”
The governor drew cheers from the crowd with news of another union: the engagement of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, whose wife Mary died of cancer shortly after the 1998 election.
The governor’s victory marks the end of what was perhaps the most expensive political campaign in state history, with the two parties raising as much as $80 million between them.
The campaign left bitter feelings among partisans, with both sides alleging dirty tactics by the other until the final day. McBride’s campaign had called Bush’s team the “most dishonest campaign in history,” while Bush had assailed the tight relationship between McBride and organized labor.
Both men had reached out to their parties’ national leaders in the past few days, with former President Bill Clinton spending two days in South Florida rallying black voters for McBride, and President Bush, who has stumped in the state 12 times over the past two years for his younger brother, loaning the prestige of the White House to the governor over the weekend.
From the stage, the younger Bush thanked the president for “coming down and helping his little brother.”
McBride, who had focused much of his attention in the campaign’s final days on mobilizing black voters in South Florida, conceded shortly after 10 p.m. at a hotel in Tampa, hugging state teachers’ union President Maureen Dinnen, who called him a “man of honor.”
McBride’s supporters jeered as the candidate told them of his phone call moments earlier to congratulate the governor.
“No, please, hold on,” McBride said, trying to quell the noise. Saying there had been too much “partisanship” and “finger-pointing,” he urged his supporters to “be big.”
“What we need to do now is get behind our leader and make sure he does the best he possibly can,” he said.
The loss leaves a questionable future for McBride, who rose from unknown to conqueror, upsetting Reno in the September primary.
At the time, McBride was viewed as a giant-slayer with a fresh face who could rebuild a once-dominant party with few remaining stars.
Now, he may face criticism from state and national Democrats who viewed Bush as beatable in a year that the party raised nearly $30 million. Such a decisive loss leaves the party without a statewide leader or a presumptive front-runner for 2006.
McBride was the party’s chosen son because strategists believed he was more “electable” than the controversial Reno, yet he campaigned on a single issue: bashing Bush’s education record.
McBride appeared within striking distance of the governor weeks ago. But when Bush was able to use McBride’s support for a cap on class sizes as a weapon to portray the Democrat as a tax-and-spend liberal, McBride’s campaign sputtered to shed the label.
McBride refused to speculate on his future.
“Tomorrow I’m going to think about what we’re going to do,” he said.
While Bush’s victory was welcome news from the governor’s office in Tallahassee to the White House, Tuesday’s results still pose some challenges for his second term.
Amendment 9, the measure to cap class sizes that the governor fought intensely, appeared on track to pass narrowly. The amendment could cost billions of dollars, and Bush has said he would certainly have to raise taxes.
Asked if he was disappointed that he would have to grapple with the amendment, the governor said: “Not tonight.”
“There’ll be time to be bummed out,” he added.
Voters also rejected Bush’s vision of how to govern higher education, backing a measure proposed by Sen. Bob Graham to restore a state Board of Regents.
But McBride, who had hoped to fashion a coalition of parents angry about standardized tests and crowded schools into a Democratic mandate, in the end simply couldn’t enthuse enough people.
At a Carol City precinct, voter Angela Lewis said she settled for McBride. “I wasn’t impressed, wasn’t satisfied, but I figured he was the lesser of the two evils,” she said.