Jacksonville, Fla. — Three national political reporters checked in this past week. Beagles to the scent, they are sniffing around Florida in preparation for the Race of the Year. The contest between Rick Scott and Bill Nelson, they surmise, will decide control of the Senate, which in turn will decide the composition of the Supreme Court, which in turn will decide the incandescent issues of our time, which in turn will decide the fate of the world as we know it.
Maybe. But it seems much more likely that the Race of the Year will be the one that decides the fate of state government in Tallahassee, which in turn will decide the future of Florida, which in turn will set the odds for conservative prospects in 2020 and beyond.
Consider this remarkable datum: Florida, the nation’s third-most populous state, spends approximately half as much on state government as New York, the nation’s fourth-most populous state. Having lived in both places, I can report from consumer experience that public services — education, public safety, transportation, and the like — are roughly equivalent in the two states, with a small but widening advantage accruing to Florida.
How could that possibly be? Can taxpayers ever reasonably expect to pay less and get more? (Overtaxed New Yorkers can perhaps take solace from Charles Kettering’s jaundiced insight: “Thank God we don’t get all the government we’re paying for.”) Ask ten political analysts to explain the Florida–New York anomaly, and you’ll get at least ten smoke-blown answers and one obdurate fact: The Democratic party has not elected a governor in Florida in 24 years. For an entire generation, even as Floridians voted at the national level for Clinton and Bush and Obama and Trump, they sent nothing but Republicans to Tallahassee.
They were, variously, good (Jeb Bush), great (Rick Scott), and mortifyingly bad (Charlie Crist), but they all appointed yellow-dog Republicans to positions across the bureaucracy, making the state work force over the years surprisingly red and temperamentally non-intrusive. (I once described his employees to Governor Scott as “your own deep state.” He was not amused, but then he’s not easily amused.)
The Democrats smell an opportunity in the governorship this year, for five reasons.
* The gubernatorial race for the first time in eight years is for an open seat.
* Scott has picked up his personal fortune and taken it home to his Senate race. (In the category of remarkable facts, consider this one. Scott’s blind trust at the end of 2016 was valued at $130 million. At the end of 2017, it was $215 million. Past results may be no guarantee of future returns, but at 65 percent year over year, who cares?)
* Trump has annoyed as many people here as he has elsewhere.
* The tidal wave of Puerto Ricans — first attracted by mainland economic opportunity and then propelled by Hurricane Maria — has changed the political dynamic in the swing districts of central Florida.
* And, most significantly, the Republicans have one too many good candidates.
The milling herd of Democratic candidates has now thinned itself to four. Former congresswoman Gwen Graham is a low-flame feminist from the panhandle who, thanks to warm memories of her father, former senator and governor Bob Graham, enjoys medium–high name ID and the benefit of voter doubt. Andrew Gillum is the black mayor of Tallahassee, a city that carries roughly the same clout in statewide politics as Albany does in New York. Phillip Levine is the former mayor of Miami Beach, which historically has not been the mother of governors, but he is rich, liberal, Jewish, and well-known in south Florida. As a June 9 headline in the Tampa Bay Times asked (and seemed to answer): “With a credible poll showing Levine leading the field by 16 points, who has the resources to topple him?”
Not so fast. The answer to that question, at least in his own mind, is Jeff Greene, who “jumped into” the race a few weeks ago, taking direct aim at Levine. Depending on the micro-targeted audience in front of him, Greene has contended that he is richer than Levine (fact check: true. Levine made $100 million in the cruise business, Greene a few billion in real estate), more liberal than Levine (fact check: true, if microscopically so), and more Jewish than Levine (fact check: I’m probably the wrong guy to ask). Greene has run twice before: first in California as a conservative Republican for Congress and then, eight years ago in Florida, for the Senate as a liberal Democrat. (Those were forgettable races. Greene is best remembered, perhaps, for selecting Mike Tyson to be his best man at his wedding. Yes, that Mike Tyson — the ear-biting, wife-threatening former heavyweight boxer.)
Either Adam Putnam or Ron DeSantis could beat any of the four Democratic gubernatorial candidates. If they didn’t have to face one another first, that is.
This 2018 Democratic lineup will not easily be confused with the 1927 Yankees. While all four of the candidates have, if you squint a bit, a discernible path to victory, none of them has “winner” written all over him, or her.
Which brings us to the Republican gubernatorial candidates, Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis. They have a few things in common. They are both young, accomplished, articulate, conservative, well-funded, and highly competitive. Either of them could beat any of the four Democratic candidates. If they didn’t have to face one another first, that is, in the August 28 primary. Whoever came up with the idea of a late-summer election in Florida — a time when everybody with the resources to escape the heat does so — should be horsewhipped. But the reality looms. On August 29, the Republican nominee, whoever he may be, will crawl out of bed exhausted, bloodied, broke, and, quite possibly, seething with resentment at his Republican opponent. And with the general election only two months away . . .
Thus the August 29 Committee, a spontaneously formed group of movement-minded conservatives who, appreciating both the virtue and the value of Florida governance, are coming together to preserve it. Their goal is to gather resources, mediate between factions, smooth the path for what could be a sore loser, or a sore winner, and focus partisan energies on the November election and beyond. A worthy cause, that.