Adam Weinstein: The three big reasons Florida Democrats still can’t elect a governor

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In 1994, at the height of the nationwide electoral wave against Bill Clinton — a force so great and enduring it would be remembered as “the Republican revolution” — there was one bright spot for Democrats: They held on to the Florida Governor’s Mansion.

Lawton Chiles, a self-described cracker and populist, fought off a challenge from a political novice named Jeb Bush. (Chiles’ volunteers wore anti-Bush buttons that read: “I didn’t vote for your daddy, either.”)

In the 20 years since, no Democratic candidate has seen the inside of the Governor’s Mansion. A state that has voted for Clinton once and Barack Obama twice just returned Republican Gov. Rick Scott to office.

What’s remarkable about this: No one in Florida until very recently publicly admitted to liking Rick Scott, even among Republicans. He spent much of his first term as the lowest-rated governor in America. The GOP-run Legislature complained about his incompetence, aloofness, and obstinacy.

And yet he won. Or rather, Democrats lost. It was a tough year for Democrats, sure, but so was 1994, and they managed to hang onto the governor’s post, even as they permanently lost the statehouse. What went wrong? What did they need to do better?

Here are three main takeaways for Democrats:

(1) Stop trying to win on the cheap. Yes, Rick Scott’s spending was in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Much of it was his own money. Much more came from outside “soft money” groups. And it was damned effective. Early TV ad buys turned this election on its ear: “Good time” Charlie Crist, who for all his foibles had left office a well-liked governor, suddenly turned off voters as much or more than Scott, whose policies those same voters said they hated. The difference was simply establishing a media and cultural atmosphere in which it became normal to hate Crist as a “slick politician” and give “the most despised governor in the country” the benefit of the doubt. Big spending did this.

What was the Democratic response? They spent plenty of dough, too, but too little and especially too late. Scott succeeded in defining Crist to voters, and the Crist campaign seemed content to play the underdog, poised to celebrate a close victory as a triumph of David over Goliath, and to explain away a loss as what “should have” happened, given the numbers. That’s absurd thinking: In no universe is a former governor a slingshot-lugging David, and in no universe should a challenge to Rick Scott have been close. That reasoning goes a long way to explaining why Dems are losers in Florida.

(2) If you legitimately can’t win the money and advertising game, don’t blow the few remaining big chances to define your opponent. One reason critics of Rick Scott can’t understand how he won is because they actually watched the televised debates, in which Scott went MIA for seven minutes over a fan, flubbed his explanation awfully, slaughtered the Spanish language, forgot why he loved his daughter, and generally looked like a bumbling idiot you wouldn’t elect for PTA secretary, much less governor.

But most Floridians never saw those lowlights, because the campaigns agreed not to use debate footage in their advertising. Crist’s camp was a bunch of suckers to agree to that. The debates were the biggest, best chance for Floridians to remember why they ever hated Scott to begin with. But instead of fangate and excruciating images of a tongue-tied incumbent who couldn’t explain why he wanted to be reelected, voters were bombarded in the closing days of the campaign by his slick ads calling Crist “a slick politician.”

Lesson to Dems: If you’re running a more eloquent, more telegenic candidate, don’t agree to limit opportunities for voters to see that contrast with duds like Rick Scott.

(3) For all of his personal flaws and disadvantages — underfunded, defined by his opponent, facing 60 or so counties that voted solidly Republican in a GOP wave election year — Charlie Crist still could have won if he’d been more like Barack Obama and less like Alex Sink: He needed to get out the vote in South Florida.

Small wonder that they lost their elections by a similar margin: 60,000 to 70,000 votes out of some 6 million cast. In Broward County alone — Florida’s bluest part — there are 550,000 registered Democrats and more than 250,000 independents. Crist got just under 318,000 to vote for him. A more organized turnout campaign that focused on Election Day voters in Broward might have been enough to flip this race. If he’d done that in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach — even to the detriment of other counties — it might not have even been close.

Stumping and glad-handing is only part of the battle: You have to know — not hope, not believe, but know — that your voters will turn out. The Obama campaign not only used metrics and computer-assisted campaigning to great effect twice, but some powerful psychological tools in its phone-banking and door-knocking work that traditional campaigns seem not to care much about. I saw no evidence of that ground-level work among Democrats this year, with one exception: the campaign of Gwen Graham, who bucked the tide and unseated a tea party congressman in North Florida. It was incredibly close, and personal contact and follow-ups with voters by her campaign made the difference.

The paucity of such efforts is a problem not only with a state Democratic Party that’s still too ensconced in picayune Tallahassee politics, but also with the current batch of Dem power brokers in South Florida — a self-serving, small-minded bunch that’s either too focused on their tiny fiefdoms or on Washington careerism to care about their party’s shallow bench in state politics.

How do you get South Florida voters excited? Well, it helps to actually care about them. No South Florida Dem has occupied the Governor’s Mansion — or even run at the top of the ticket — since Bob Graham. Conventional wisdom has it that South Florida Democrats are too liberal to run statewide. But if they can really excite voters in the big counties, how much worse could they do than the conventional wisdom’s dismal decades-long run of mediocrity?

 Adam Weinstein is a Tallahassee-based senior writer for Gawker. He has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Mother Jones.