The biggest winner in Tuesday’s election in Florida was the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature. It coasted to victory with little effort, broke fundraising records and came away with enough political power to control the agenda — even that of Gov. Rick Scott’s.
Florida voters gave the governor four more years in office, but more people voted against him than for him. Unofficial election returns gave Scott a 1.1 percent victory over Democrat Charlie Crist, a margin of nearly 66,000 votes out of 6 million cast, nearly identical to Scott’s 61,550-vote win over Alex Sink four years ago. Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie got 223,000 votes.
By contrast, Republicans in the Legislature picked up a supermajority in the House and preserved their majority in the Senate, essentially restoring the numbers they had in 2010 when Scott was first elected in the tea party wave.
The results are a reminder that Florida remains a deeply divided state with a majority that swings right during the mid-term elections and swings left in presidential years.
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The returns also show that, even in a year in which Republicans swept most competitive seats and the Florida GOP invested more than $100 million reelecting the governor, Scott’s political persona remains weak. He will go down in the history books as the only governor elected twice without getting a majority of the vote either time.
“There is no mandate for Rick Scott,” said Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant. “We’re going to continue to hold him accountable. He does not have the support that he thinks he has.”
As a result, the Republicans in the Legislature are expected to set the agenda and shape it, as they have done in Scott’s first four years.
“We’re going to pick up right where we left off,’’ said Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, the incoming House speaker. “We will continue to work on what we’ve been working on — providing a good environment for businesses to create jobs and a lower unemployment rate.”
Tuesday’s exit polls showed that 73 percent of Floridians are very much worried about the economy, even as the state unemployment rate plummeted from 11 percent in 2010 to 6.3 percent this year.
Scott’s reelection message focused on creating jobs, but he offered few policy details, leaving room for the Legislature to determine what that means.
“It’s time to put all the division behind us and come together,” Scott told a cheering crowd of supporters in Bonita Springs on Tuesday night following his victory. “Forget about all the partisanship. Florida is on a mission.”
That mission, as Scott defines it, is to keep growing, creating jobs and improving the state’s quality of life. To get there, he has made a series of campaign promises, such as a $1 billion cut in taxes, $1 billion more in spending on the environment and more money for schools, seaports and job training.
For Scott, it’s a mission without a mandate. Even as they toasted his reelection victory, lobbyists at a Hyatt hotel bar in Bonita Springs were jokingly calling him “Landslide Rick.”
He also is the least popular Republican who won election in Florida on Tuesday, having received fewer votes than Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and 500,000 fewer votes than the medical marijuana amendment, which failed because it did not get the required 60 percent approval.
According to exit polls by CNN and The Associated Press, only 44 percent said they had a favorable view of Scott — compared to 51 percent who said they had a favorable view of Crist.
As the Democrats focused on electing Crist, they fielded weaker candidates and raised less money, while Republicans stockpiled more than $200 million in special-interest campaign cash. As a result, the GOP easily held on to the 26-14 Senate majority and recaptured six Democrat-held House seats for a veto-proof 81-39 advantage for the next two years.
It would appear that Scott has more support than ever in the Legislature but, in Florida’s Capitol, looks can be deceiving.
“A two term reelected Republican governor with a Republican Legislature is the most powerful political animal out there,” said Brian Ballard, Republican fundraiser, lobbyist and Scott ally. But, he warned, Scott’s lock on power is not likely to last much longer than the first year of the governor’s second term.
“There’s a glow that is still going to be emanating from the governor and the new speaker and the new president and they obviously are going to have disagreement, but they start with a clean slate,” Ballard said. “Over time, the wear and tear of the machinery takes its toll.”
Scott arrived as a newcomer and, in his first year, the Legislature pushed and Scott signed controversial laws that changed the way Florida teachers are evaluated and paid, required state workers to deduct 3 percent of their paycheck to pay for retirement, imposed drug tests on welfare recipients, reduced early voting, rejected Medicaid expansion and privatized prison medical care.
Conservative-backed measures to cripple unions and punish businesses who hired undocumented immigrants also passed in the House but were stopped by a handful of moderate Republicans in the Senate. After President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012, Scott’s agenda shifted to the middle as he backed measures to give in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants and restored massive funding cuts to education.
With Obama leaving office in January 2017, the 2016 presidential race will be wide open and Florida will garner the nation’s attention with Scott as governor. This could keep him from pushing his agenda too far right.
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the incoming Senate Democratic leader from Tampa, said she fully expects Scott to take a more moderate approach this term.
“He said he’s going to do things a little differently,” she said. “We’re going to see if he keeps his word and he’ll have to spend less time fighting President Obama and more time fighting for the people of Florida.”
The GOP juggernaut is expected to lead an agenda of reducing regulations, taxes and union power. Legislation is also expected to track the agendas of some of the GOP’s largest donors:
The gambling industry gave $8.6 million. Florida Power & Light gave $7.5 million. U.S. Sugar gave $2.7 million. The telecom industry gave $1.5 million. The construction industry gave $1.8 million. The healthcare industry gave $2.3 million. Charter school and school choice proponents gave $900,000, and the business lobby, which collects money from all those entities, gave more than $10 million.
“We passed 99 bills in the last 4 years and Gov. Scott signed all 99,” said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which gave nearly $7 million to Republicans. “Over the next four years we hope the Legislature will want to partner with us to do another 99.”
Whether the Legislature will lurch as far to the right as it did when Scott was first elected and the House held a five-seat super-majority is yet to be seen. Although Florida Republicans benefited from the national GOP wave this year, the tea party did not play a prominent role.
“It would be my hope that the executive office and the legislative branches would not make the mistake they did in 2010 and read their win as a mandate on an overtly right-wing philosophy,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, a high school teacher. “What people want now is governance. They want to see our parties work together.”
As lawmakers face many more competitive campaigns in 2016 because of redistricting, it remains unclear whether they will take a more centrist tack than in the past.
Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who will be named the next Senate president on Nov. 18, predicted that in at least one area — school testing — lawmakers are prepared to scale back the number of tests after a decade of defending them.
“We heard a lot of concern on the campaign trail about school tests and we are going to have a discussion about that,” he told the Herald/Times. “It’s not about accountability — we’re always going to have accountability — it’s about the number of tests.”
He acknowledged that the 2016 presidential election already overshadows everything.
“We will encourage all senators whether they are running in 2016 or 2018 to start campaigning next week,” Gardiner said. “It’s important you don’t lose touch.”
Herald/Times staff writer Rochelle Koff contributed to this report.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas
Gov. Scott’s narrow victory
Since 1970, Florida governors could seek a second term. Rick Scott is the only governor who won twice without a majority of votes either time. Here’s how previous governors performed:
Reubin Askew (D)
Reubin Askew (D)
Bob Graham (D)
Bob Graham (D)
Bob Martinez (R)
Lawton Chiles (D)
Lawton Chiles (D)
Jeb Bush (R)
Jeb Bush (R)
Charlie Crist (R)
Rick Scott (R)
Rick Scott (R)
Sources: Florida Handbook; Florida Division of Elections.