Florida’s election left two questions: Which Rick Scott will govern over the next four years and who can Democrats turn to in a statewide election after failing with a former Republican?
As in 2010, Scott was elected with less than half the votes cast after spending millions of his own money on his campaign. Unlike 2010, when he ran as a tea party conservative promising to slash government spending and pass an Arizona-like immigration law, this year he signed a bill allowing instate tuition for people living in the U.S. illegally and promised to boost education and environmental spending.
So which governor will he be now that he doesn’t have to face re-election?
“I don’t think any of us know,” said former Democratic Sen. Steve Geller. “All of us are hoping that we will see the kinder and gentler Governor Scott … I think that however he governs during his first year of his second term will be the way that he will govern during the remainder of his second term.”
Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who helped Scott’s re-election, said a second Scott term will look more like the last two years of his first term – a period when Scott shifted closer to the political middle.
“The tea party mantle on him didn’t really fit,” Ballard said. “In my mind he’s going to be very much like Jeb Bush in his second term. He’s not a divider. He’s someone who wants to bring people together.”
Ballard said Scott took over as governor four years ago with no experience in elected office and faced a learning curve.
“There were some bumps in the first two years, but they got ironed out,” Ballard said.
The election did have some Democrats and Republicans agreeing on one thing, considering that Scott won with less than half the vote.
“It’s obviously not a mandate,” said former Sen. Dan Gelber, who was a Crist campaign adviser.
A bigger question is what can Democrats do to regain relevance at the state Capitol? They sustained losses in the Legislature, giving Republicans a two-thirds majority in the House and nearly that much in the Senate.
Democrats also lost all three Cabinet races. Their chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner candidates were no-names with no serious backing. And while Barack Obama carried Florida in 2008 and 2012, Democrats haven’t elected a governor since Lawton Chiles barely beat Bush in 1994.
“We said this for years, but I guess I’m going to say it again: We have to figure out how to get our voters motivated,” said former CFO Alex Sink, who lost to Scott in 2010. Her 2006 CFO victory is the only Democratic Cabinet win since 1998. “When any candidate gets outspent 2-to-1, it’s hard to win.”
In 2010, Scott spent about $73 million of his own money to beat Sink. This year Scott pumped $13 million of his and his wife’s money into his re-election bid in the final days of the campaign after polls showed Crist gaining momentum.
“We came upon a ton of money and we thought we could fight through it and we weren’t able to,” Gelber said. “If this election happened a week ago, it would have been a different election, but he plopped down $13 million.”
But the fact that Democrats relied on a candidate who has run statewide as a Republican four times and as an independent once – after beginning the 2010 Senate race as a Republican – speaks volumes about their inability to field a winning candidate.
And Republicans have three strong potential 2018 gubernatorial candidates who already have statewide name ID: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Who do the Democrats have?
“We’ve got a lot of wonderful mayors – wonderful mayors,” Gelber said.
Among them are Orlando’s Buddy Dyer, Fort Lauderdale’s Jack Seiler, Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn and Jacksonville’s Alvin Brown.
Gelber also cited attorney Gwen Graham, the daughter of former governor and senator Bob Graham. She unseated 2nd District Republican U.S. Rep Steve Southerland on Tuesday. Considering she hasn’t even been sworn in and Democrats are already talking up her potential says a lot about the party’s bench.
“There are people that we can run, but I don’t know if they will. I would think that Buddy Dyer would be very competitive. I would think that Jack Seiler would be very competitive. Bob Buckhorn. I think that our mayors will be a source of strength,” said Gelber. “Gwen Graham may be a legitimate candidate.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.