Bolstered by a $100 million campaign and a stronger economy, Gov. Rick Scott overcame his own political liabilities and a fierce challenge from Democrat Charlie Crist on Tuesday as he won a second term that solidified Republican control of the state.
Polls showed the race would be tight, and it was.
As Scott clung to a 1.4 percentage point lead, Crist conceded before 11:30 p.m.
“It’s time to put all the division behind us and come together. Forget the partisanship,” Scott said in his victory speech.
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“Florida is on a mission — and that is to keep growing.”
Scott, who turns 62 next month, becomes only the second Republican governor in state history, along with Jeb Bush, to win back-to-back terms. In one respect, he’ll be even more powerful than Bush because Republicans on Tuesday won super-majority control of the Florida House. The GOP also controls the state Senate.
In his speech, Crist said he congratulated Scott and talked about finding common ground and asked the governor to expand Medicaid.
“As you know for me, it’s never really been right vs. left,” Crist said. “It’s really been about right vs. wrong.”
The win by Scott was no small feat. Not only were his poll numbers poor, but his awkward, camera-shy performance often made him the butt of jokes by late-night TV comics.
But Scott had the last laugh on Tuesday. On Monday, he predicted a victory but only got the hour of his win wrong.
“We’re going to announce at 8 o’clock that we kicked Charlie’s rear,” Scott told retirees at The Villages. “And he deserves it.”
The comment underscored the antipathy between the two candidates.
Crist described Scott as a “fraud” because of the record Medicare fraud fine paid by Scott’s former hospital company, which he left in 1997.
But Scott deployed a devastatingly effective scorched-earth strategy of spending tens of millions on TV ads that called Crist a “slick politician” and “lousy governor” that damaged the nice-guy image he had cultivated for decades.
Scott spent at least $70 million on TV ads, many of them negative. Crist and his allies spent less than $40 million, much of it negative, on TV.
By the end of the campaign, Crist was less-liked than Scott.
Once one of the least-popular governors in the country, Scott’s rise-from-the-ashes victory was attributable to several factors aside from his massive fund-raising advantage: the power of incumbency, an effective Republican get-out-the-vote effort and Crist’s failure to get Democrat-rich South Florida to turnout the way it does in presidential elections.
Scott also benefited from an improving economy, which formed his argument for a second term, using the slogan “Let’s Keep Working” and citing the number of new jobs and the drop in the state unemployment rate.
Crist and Democrats were left arguing that Scott deserved little to no credit for the state’s economic conditions.
Aside from the crushing national loss of the U.S. Senate, Democrats and liberalism were reeling Tuesday night in Florida, which just two years before elected President Obama:
▪ The Florida Legislature is almost redder than ever.
▪ U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia of Miami lost his seat, though Democrat Gwen Graham picked up a Republican seat in Tallahassee. Republicans still control 17 of Florida’s 27 congressional seats.
▪ Crist’s boss, trial lawyer John Morgan, saw a medical marijuana initiative of his fall 3 percentage-points shy of securing the 60 percent threshold needed for passage. He’s pledged to try again in 2016.
▪ Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate political committee pumped $16 million into the race to defeat Scott and advocate for climate-change policies.
▪ And Crist became the fourth Tampa Bay Democrat in a row to lose the governor’s mansion. The last Democrat to win the office: Lawton Chiles, elected 20 years ago in 1994.
▪ And Crist became the fourth Tampa Bay Democrat in a row to lose the governor’s mansion. He’s the first Florida politician to lose statewide races as a Republican, independent and a Democrat. The last Democrat to win as governor: Lawton Chiles, elected 20 years ago in 1994.
Just as he had in 2010, Scott looked beatable.
Yet the Democratic Party had the smallest of benches. It fielded little-known and underfunded candidates against Florida Cabinet members, who easily dispatched them Tuesday night.
Crist was the Democrats’ best candidate — even though he had been a Republican governor, an unsuccessful independent U.S. Senate candidate and, finally, a Democrat.
Unlike his predecessors, though, Crist made concentrating on Democrat-rich South Florida a priority.
But Crist and his team, filled with former Obama campaign advisers, failed to organize, inspire or motivate South Florida Democrats the way Obama had.
The Crist campaign, however, talked a good game.
“The ground operation @CharlieCrist has built rivals any this cycle. That will show itself on Election Day,” Crist adviser and Obama reelection campaign manager, Jim Messina, said on Twitter Oct. 27.
Long before that, troubling signs emerged that Democrats weren’t enthusiastic about Crist’s campaign. Crist refused to debate longtime South Florida Democrat Nan Rich in the party primary and, after that August election, turnout results indicated relatively soft support for Crist.
Then, when absentee-ballot voting began in early October, Republicans seized the lead with hundreds of thousands of ballots. Democrats, though, insisted they were doing well because they improved on their performance from 2010, a low watermark.
The first full weekend of in-person early voting, in late October, also indicated a lack of Democratic enthusiasm, but Crist’s team denied that was the case. Only last weekend did Democrats vote in relatively large numbers.
By then, it might have been too late. When Election Day dawned, Republicans led Democrats in early votes cast by about 98,000.
As election night closed, Crist won the counties in just four of the state’s media markets: Miami, Palm Beach, Tallahassee and Gainesville. Scott carried six, including Crist’s hometown market of Tampa as well as Orlando, Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Pensacola and Panama City.
Heading into the election season, Democrats played up the growing demographic problems faced by the Florida GOP, which has become whiter and older as the state has become younger and blacker and browner, the midterm’s electorate was overwhelmingly white and old.
But Hispanics were among the least-likely to vote, except for Miami-Dade’s Republican Cuban-Americans. Scott’s running mate, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, helped shore up his fellow Cuban-Americans in his home county. Crist’s running mate was also from Miami, Colombian-born Annette Taddeo.
The Republican enthusiasm was inversely proportional to President Obama’s lack of popularity.
And when Scott and the GOP weren’t attacking Crist’s integrity on TV, they were reminding viewers of his unwavering allegiance to Barack Obama at a time when the president’s favorability ratings in Florida are abysmal.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden stumped for Crist, but Obama never made an appearance and only recorded a last-minute radio spot for Crist.
Wave after wave of Republican stars came to Florida to bolster Scott’s political fortunes. They included Bush, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association that plowed $18 million into Scott’s campaign.
Their continued presence wasn’t just to help Scott. It’s a priority of national Republicans to preserve their party’s control of the Governor’s Mansion entering the 2016 presidential campaign when Florida will again be a key battleground.
Scott, in his victory speech, referenced Perry, a friend, and Texas’ job-creation record. Scott says Florida will beat it.
“We have made great strides in the past four years, but we cannot rest on our laurels,” Scott said. “I will not let up.”