Florida GOP Forecast
A stormy, disappointing year for Republicans may extend into this fall.

Gov. Rick Scott of Florida


Neal B. Freeman

Jacksonville -Florida has learned to wear its new responsibilities lightly. The other 49 states may be encouraged to stage rallies, drag parades down Main Street, befoul the air with campaign spots, and simulate the tension of last-minute GOTV drives, but when it comes to really deciding elections, Florida is prepared to do the heavy lifting. Over the last four presidential cycles, it’s been Clinton, Bush, Bush, and Obama, with Florida voters serving in each case as proxies for the rest of the country. The old saw should thus be retrofitted: As goes Florida, so goes the nation.

Well then, how goes Florida these days? Just as it was elsewhere, Florida in 2010 was an annus mirabilis for Republicans. Almost everything that could go right went right. Last year was different — much different.

It was only 15 months ago that the GOP elected a new governor, Rick Scott, a wealthy businessman bristling with resolve as a no-nonsense reformer. Florida sent to the U.S. Senate the estimable Marco Rubio, who glows with national possibility as a demographic game-changer. Republicans also elected a firecracker of an attorney general named Pam Bondi, picked up four new congressional seats, and retained large majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. The state GOP then installed as chairman David Bitner, a driven executive with a charter to crank up the party following the decay — or, as some would say, corruption — of his predecessor-but-one, Jim Greer. Finally, to make a great year insanely great, Florida was awarded two additional congressional seats following the 2010 census, both of them likely to be planted in Republican-friendly soil. To be a Florida Republican in 2010 ’twas perfect heav’n.

That was then. The problems began to pile up quickly in 2011. The trouble started with Governor Scott. He proved to be everything his tidal wave of campaign ads had said he was. Upright, smart, principled. But those ads, to nobody’s real surprise, were less than comprehensively informative.

Scott’s predecessor, the legendary Charlie Crist, had left large, well-disguised holes in the budget, and the new governor was soon presented with shortfalls that the press described inevitably but accurately as “yawning.” (Depending on your perspective, Crist was either legendarily wily or legendarily duplicitous.) Scott sized up the situation quickly and charged into the fray, CEO-style. He made crisp decisions and issued crisper directives, an approach drawn from the standard business-school manual. That approach might have worked back at his hospital company, where managers were trained to bark “Yes, sir” when informed of C-suite decisions. But Scott was in politics now, which the good old boys in Tallahassee liked to think of as a team sport (though many of them acted like pouty wide receivers not getting enough touches).

In the early weeks of his tenure, Scott would issue a bold pronouncement each day, and the legislative barons would gaze around the room and roll their eyes. Virtually none of them had supported Scott in the GOP primary, and they weren’t about to stir themselves to his defense now that he was slaughtering sacred cows worshipped by their constituents. Those constituents, who had voted offhandedly for the newcomer Scott in a lesser-of-two-evils election, then began to pick up on the disconnect between Scott and his heavily Republican legislature. The voters seemed to understand both the basic terms of the fiscal crisis and the operational corollary that the making of omelets involves necessarily the breaking of eggs. What turned them against Scott was the impression that the governor seemed to enjoy smashing the eggs a lot more than he enjoyed fluffing the omelets. As the opinion hardened that he was a bloodless, numbers-driven, front-office type, Scott’s public support began to erode, and his approval ratings slid steadily before settling in the 30s, where they remain. Pollsters recently deemed him America’s least popular governor, a distinction of sorts.

The next setback for the GOP occurred, implausibly, in Jacksonville. After three strong Republicans carved each other up in a fratricidal frenzy last spring, a nimble Democrat, Alvin Brown, slipped through to victory in the race for mayor. The loss of Jacksonville’s city hall may sound like small potatoes to readers, but in Florida political terms, the mayor’s office is a strategic asset. Here’s a metric that will help you win bar bets: Jacksonville is not only the largest city in Florida, but is larger by population than Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Denver, and San Francisco. More pertinent to the current discussion, Jacksonville is the only reliably Republican big city in the country, now that Phoenix and Indianapolis have drifted into political androgyny. How “reliable” are we talking here? The McCain-Palin ticket, not generally remembered as an electoral juggernaut, rolled up almost 70 percent here against Obama-Biden. Or, to put the proposition in its immediate context: If you removed Jacksonville’s votes from the statewide totals in 2010, Rick Scott would have lost his race for governor. The point I’m making is that Jacksonville is a Republican bastion in state politics, and the Republicans just lost it.

Worse still, they didn’t lose the mayoralty race to just any old Democrat. A protégé of Bill Clinton, and a veteran of his administration, Alvin Brown is wise in the ways of D.C. politics. He is a bright, engaging African American with what appears to be a big future. Do you suppose, if he were to help Obama suppress GOP margins in Jacksonville this year, that Brown’s future in national politics might arrive just a little sooner and a little bigger? The mayor seems to think so, too.