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.
The next chapter in the 2011 story was personal and painful. Dave Bitner took over the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) with admirable bustle, dashing from one county dinner to the next, recruiting, exhorting, raising money. He was just what the party needed, a fizzy tonic following the dispiriting and self-indulgent years of Crist and Greer. The party was on the move again. By the late winter, however, something seemed to change. Bitner began to slow down. His travel schedule was pared back. In an intramurally famous incident, he had difficulty negotiating a staircase; in a mortifying moment at a public event, he needed help opening a can of soda. Rumors began to race around the grapevine, followed by hush-hush reports of the terrible diagnosis. In April, Bitner confirmed that it was Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Through the spring and summer, RPOF committeemen watched in horrified silence as the chairman’s disease raced ahead. His committee colleagues are decent people and nobody said a word until Bitner finally resigned a few days before his death on September 8. The committeemen and -women are decent people, to be sure, but not necessarily serious people. The RPOF had atrophied along with its stricken leader in the year before a battleground contest with Barack Obama.
With the governor twisting in a downward spiral and the RPOF chairman fighting for his life, it came as no surprise that the other big 2012 contest — for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson — received little attention and no adult supervision. Only a year ago, Nelson was considered every bit as vulnerable as his Senate colleagues Herb Kohl, Kent Conrad, and the “other Nelson,” Ben from Nebraska, all of whom have announced plans to depart for lucrative retirement in the private sector. Bill Nelson, as a two-termer of small distinction and fuzzy profile, was widely expected to follow suit rather than face a strong GOP challenger in a presidential year.
When Nelson took the measure of the GOP field last fall, however, he double-clutched and decided to go for a third term. What did he see across the aisle that rekindled his commitment to public service? An unruly GOP primary featuring five middle-aged white guys, all of them currently running behind the pollsters’ plug, Undecided. The most prominent member of the Gang of Five is Connie Mack, a congressman from southwest Florida and, more important for polling purposes, the son of the widely admired former U.S. senator Connie Mack III. Mack IV, as he’s known to the political community, is clearly not the man his father was. The dawning apprehension is that he’s not the man his mother was. His recent entrance to the race was underwhelming in the Rick Perry sense of the word.
Florida holds its primary late — August 14 — and we are thus obliged to say that lightning could strike or Miami could disappear in a giant sinkhole or Bill Nelson could be swallowed whole by one of our famous Florida pythons. But that’s probably not the way to bet. As of this writing, Bill Nelson, who in a long political career has never faced a serious opponent, is a solid favorite for reelection.
If fumbling away a chance at the Nelson seat was an act of omission, the RPOF’s most proximate problem was created by multiple acts of commission, or so it is alleged. Here are the salient data. Prosecutors have charged Jim Greer, the aforementioned RPOF official, with corruption in his role as party chairman. The central allegation is that he used his RPOF credit card to make luxury purchases for himself and his associates. Lots of luxury purchases. The court has scheduled Greer for trial in Tampa this coming July. Yes, that would be the same city in which the Republican National Convention will meet to pick its national ticket. And yes, that would mean Greer’s corruption trial will be dominating Florida political news in the weeks leading up to the GOP convention in August.
If this sad Florida story were a Hitchcock film, the Greer trial would be the MacGuffin. What concentrates the Republican mind is the vision of Howard Fineman doing nightly stand-ups from the courthouse steps, briefing a sputtering and incredulous Chris Matthews on just how pervasively corruption has marbled its way through Florida’s vaunted GOP organization. (“Chris, this is politics at the bottom of a very rotten barrel. It’s sickening, really.” “Howard, you’re terrific. Take a shower, you need it. Then let’s get back on this story tomorrow.”)
So, what comes next? (Assuming, that is, that you choose to ignore Ol‘ Doc Freeman’s recommendation that the judge have his long-delayed hip replacement done in July and put off the trial until he has recovered fully.) If the trial moves ahead on the July schedule, the pressures from the many concerned parties will escalate quickly. We leave it to the courts to decide if Greer is a thief, but it has been established redundantly that he’s something of a weasel, and there has been speculation that the rot extends further throughout the Florida party.
It might thus suit both his purposes and those of the prosecutors, not to mention the Democratic party’s, if Greer were to roll over on a bigger fish. In that scenario, the obvious candidate for catch-of-the-day would be Greer’s patron and sometime luxury-travel buddy, Charlie Crist. When he served as governor, Crist promoted and protected Greer as party chairman with un-Crist-like fidelity. With every passing day, however, Charlie Crist becomes more of a tort lawyer and less of a political figure, and thus less obvious as a candidate for the big-fish role. Which could conceivably, at least in the febrile imaginations of Democratic partisans, lead the accommodating Greer and a headline-savoring prosecutor to . . . everybody’s favorite junior senator, Marco Rubio. At the time of some of the misdeeds cited in the complaint against Greer, Rubio was speaker of the state house and thus entitled to carry an RPOF credit card himself. Is it possible that an overscheduled young lawyer-legislator-father could have been less than fastidious in his record-keeping?
There are other permutations to the Greer challenge, dozens of them in this elaborately filigreed case, but you get the idea. This is the kind of challenge, in both size and sensitivity, that requires hands-on management by a senior party figure — precisely the type of senior figure that has been absent from Florida GOP affairs for more than a year.
Summing up the political developments of 2011, it’s probably not too much to say that for Florida Republicans last year was an annus horribilis. Almost everything that could go wrong went wrong. Which is why this column can be read as a memorandum from Florida to the other 49 states: Unlike the last four quadrennial cycles, Florida may need a little help in winning the national election for the GOP this year.
— Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to National Review.