Obama turnout breaks tea party momentum

Florida voters to the tea party: Cool it.

Tuesday’s election in the nation’s biggest battleground state was a rejection of the drift of the conservative movement and the Republican Legislature it empowered.

The state voted, albeit as narrowly as possible, for President Barack Obama, whose 2008 election brought about the rise of tea-party conservatism. Iconic tea party U.S. Rep. Allen West might also lose (he’s seeking a recount). He was painted as a name-calling extremist by Democratic opponent Patrick Murphy. And voters rejected the Legislature’s tea party-inspired proposed state constitutional amendments, starting with a measure opposing Obama’s healthcare law.

The author of that proposal, Longwood state Rep. Scott Plakon, lost his election, which he credits to an Obama turnout machine that Republicans underestimated in Florida.

"This is hard for me to process," Plakon said. "With all the debt, all the unemployment and the bad economic indicators, how is it that Obama is only 2.5 percentage points down from where he was in 2008?"

Plakon pointed out that conservatism is alive and well in Florida; Obama barely won and the Legislature is still firmly in the hands of Republicans.

In congratulating Obama on his win, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio issued a statement last night re-affirming his commitment to conservative principles. But he subtly noted a shortcoming of the tea party: the tenor of the immigration debate, which probably cost Mitt Romney some support among Florida Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate.

"The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them," Rubio said.

Obama won Hispanics by a larger margin than he did in 2008 in Florida, exit polls showed, even though he did worse overall. But Republicans did far worse than they did in 2010, when they captured super-majorities in the Legislature and won the governor’s office and every state Cabinet post.

A future Florida House speaker, Republican Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary, is in danger of losing his seat in a too-close-to-call election.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott, largely absent from the campaign trail, was highly unpopular before the election and will probably be even more so after it. His decision to sign an election law that cracked down on early voting was a major sore spot with tens of thousands of people who had to wait in seven-hour-long lines just to cast ballots.

The wait times were exacerbated by another aspect of Scott's election law: A provision that allowed proposed constitutional amendments to be printed in full. The lengthy, complicated language slowed voters down when they filled out their ballots and when they had to jam the multiple pages -- at least five sheets -- into the machines. Some machines malfunctioned under all the pressure, causing lines to back-up even on election night.

Only three constitutional amendments passed. They provided property-tax help to seniors, combat-wounded veterans and widows of veterans or first responders.

The other seven fared so poorly that they couldn’t even muster majority support, even though constitutional amendments need 60 percent approval to pass. The notable tea party-fueled amendments:

1) Healthcare services. Originally called "healthcare freedom," this proposal was passed by the GOP Legislature as a result of President Obama’s healthcare law. Mostly symbolic and conflicting with the new federal law, the measure would have banned the state from mandating health-insurance purchases. Voters rejected it 49-51 percent.

2) Government revenue cap. This was designed to limit the amount of money the state received by limiting its revenue to a formula based on inflation and population changes. Voters rejected it 58-42 percent.

3) Abortion services. This proposal sought to prohibit what wasn’t being done in Florida: prohibit taxpayer funding of abortion. It also sought to strike a privacy-rights clause in the Constitution cited in cases that uphold abortion rights. Voters rejected it 45-55 percent.

4) Religious freedom. Private religious schools seeking more government money would have received more of it with the passage of this amendment, which struck a church-and-state separation clause in the state Constitution. Voters rejected it 45-56 percent.

What’s more, Florida tea party enemy No. 1, the outspoken and liberal Democrat Alan Grayson, won election in a newly drawn congressional seat in Central Florida. The other new congressional seat, in South Florida, was won by former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, who had a relatively easy time dispatching her opponent, Adam Hasner, who had briefly run as a tea party conservative in the race to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson.

Nelson won handily, beating Congressman Connie Mack 55-42 percent. Mack’s campaign largely focused on calling Nelson a "lockstep liberal" — a line of attack that made the Republican seem like a partisan in a season when many voters want politicians to stop acting like political hatchet men.

Tuesday’s results indicate that the electorate in Florida wants a little more balance.

Where Republicans say no taxes should be raised, 57 percent of Floridians say that the wealthy at least should spend a little more, exit polls showed. Voters were more likely to believe that Obama’s policies favored the middle class when compared to Romney’s, which would be of more benefit to the rich.

But Florida voters are obviously not wild about Obama, either, and he’s the head of the Democratic Party.

Obama’s healthcare law, for instance wasn’t formally rejected by way of the anti-Obamacare amendment, voters in Florida disfavor the law. About 48 percent wanted at least some aspects of Obamacare repealed; 40 percent want to leave it as is or to expand it.

Asked if government should do more to solve problems, 40 percent said yes and 50 percent said no.

So while Democrats can exult in their Florida win Tuesday, they can remember that Republicans were feeling just as triumphant in 2010. And before that, in 2008, Democrats were enjoying Obama’s first historic win.

The differences between each of those elections? Turnout. Democrats, who outnumber registered Republicans in Florida, didn’t show in 2010 while the GOP over-performed. Democrats typically under-perform in gubernatorial election years in Florida, which is why the GOP controls the state Capitol.

"The Obama organization showed up Tuesday and the Republicans did not to the same degree," Plakon said. "Now the next two years begins."

That’s a good indication tea party conservatism is far from over. It’s just taking a break. Florida voters thought it needed one.