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Charlie Crist’s big win clouded by low turnout and enthusiasm questions

As Charlie Crist celebrates winning the Democratic nomination for Florida governor, red flags are flying that raise questions about whether he can defeat Republican Gov. Rick Scott in November.

Crist trounced underfunded rival Nan Rich with 74 percent of the vote, nearly a 3-to-1 margin. But Democrats in the state’s three largest counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach largely stayed home, displaying a lack of enthusiasm that threatens to hand Democrats a fifth straight loss in a race for governor.

“This speaks volumes as to the lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base in these midterm elections,” said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida. “If you can’t get Democrats to come out in those three counties, you’re not going to win an election.”

Statewide, the turnout Tuesday was 17.6 percent, the lowest primary showing since 1998. But it was lower in all three South Florida counties: 14.4 percent in Miami-Dade, 12 percent in Palm Beach and 10.8 percent in Broward, second only to Glades County in turnout among all 67 counties.

Crist adviser Steve Schale said his party saw no need to spend money on voter turnout when internal polling showed Crist with a 50-point lead over Rich.

“I don’t think this election says anything about either side,” Schale said. “It was basically a non-event.”

Republicans seemed to have even less reason to show up, with Scott’s renomination assured against two complete unknowns. But together they collected 12 percent of the Republican vote, a small sign of dissatisfaction with Scott.

In addition, some Republicans who voted skipped the race for governor entirely in a none-of-the-above gesture. In Pinellas, where figures were available, 5.5 percent of Republicans or about 3,600 voters cast no ballot for Scott or his two challengers, compared to 2 percent of Democrats who skipped the Crist-Rich contest.

Statewide, Republicans cast 952,000 ballots for governor to Democrats’ 838,000, a GOP advantage of more than 114,000 votes, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in Florida by nearly a half million.

“Republicans turned out organically to re-elect Gov. Scott, while the Crist campaign spent precious dollars trying to coax Democrats to vote,” said Scott’s deputy campaign manager, Tim Saler.

The Republican turnout likely was boosted by competitive races for Congress, the state Legislature, school board and county commission offices. Many local candidates have separate get-out-the-vote efforts and increasingly advertise on TV.

Scott’s campaign opened 49 field offices statewide and said it knocked on 750,000 doors in the primary. The campaign also spent an estimated $25 million on TV ads, many highly critical of Crist in an aggressive strategy to define him in the minds of voters.

Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Broward, said Republicans spent vastly more money in the primary than did Democrats.

“To point to a primary in which there was no organized effort by Democrats to spend resources communicating about the election, when Rick Scott spent tens of millions of dollars attacking Charlie Crist, I think that pretty well sums up the difference in the turnout,” she said.

Another challenge for Crist is that he under-performed in two-dozen conservative upstate counties where “Dixiecrats” have become reliably Republican in recent general elections. Rich got 40 percent or more of the vote in 22 counties and won two, Holmes and Putnam, where she got 56 percent of the vote and spent months building grass roots support.

Rosemary Anderson, who chairs Putnam’s Democratic Party, said Rich had “impeccable credentials” and courted local activists months before Crist entered the race.

“We were very taken with her,” Anderson said. “We wish there had been debates.”

Anderson said Putnam Democrats will unify behind Crist for a basic reason: They don’t want to see Scott get re-elected.

Rich isn’t the first underdog Democrat to win favor in rural Florida. It happened in 2010, too, when Democratic front-runner Alex Sink won the primary with 77 percent of the vote and little-known rival Brian Moore got 23 percent with a lot of votes from the same counties where Rich did well Tuesday.

Republican political strategist J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich dismissed the significance of votes for the little-known challengers to Crist and Scott.

“’No’ would get 20 percent in a referendum on Mom & apple pie,” he said on Twitter.

The Democrats’ effort to build momentum for November begins Thursday with unity rallies in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale bringing Crist, Rich and other notable Democrats together.

Unlike Sink, who’s remembered by Broward Democrats mainly for raising money there, Crist has made Broward the centerpiece of his grass-roots strategy. But it’s a place where voters are bored by opening-act primaries that winnow the field, and where party factions are known for battling each other.

“People want to vote when it’s going to count, and that’s the general election,” said Jack Shifrel of Margate, a Broward Democratic activist since 1980, “and I’ve never seen all the different factions come together as they have this year.”

Herald/Times staff writers Marc Caputo and Alex Leary contributed to this report.