ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Baker wasn't the most lovable candidate when he was winning the mayor's race. In his first campaign speech, he sourly cast St. Petersburg as a disaster zone under Mayor Rick Kriseman, and in their only televised debate, he smugly declared, "I just don't like" Kriseman.
I shudder to think what Baker may be like now that he's losing. The former mayor's spitting-mad, election-night harangue about "an incumbent who has devastated our city in so many ways" does not bode well.
We get it. Baker has gone from being a guy who saw himself as Florida's next governor or President Jeb Bush's Cabinet member to being the second-place finisher in St. Pete's mayoral primary. But lighten up, big guy. "Another angry day in St. Petersburg" does not make for a winning message in a city brimming with civic pride.
What had looked to many like a foregone conclusion — Baker either narrowly winning outright Tuesday or falling just short and then coasting to an easy victory in November — now looks like a wide-open race. Every public poll showed Baker leading, most of them by at least 6 percentage points.
The momentum in this highly partisan (but officially nonpartisan) contest has shifted to Kriseman. He can thank the state Democratic Party for its considerable financial support and manpower, but above all he can thank President Donald Trump.
Both sides acknowledge Baker's edge disappeared quickly in the aftermath of Trump's reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, Va.
And now Republicans across the state should be concerned by what this race may signal for midterm elections up and down the ballot. Baker may win in November, but the primary results clearly suggest Trump may be an albatross on candidates tied to him. The Democrats, heavily targeting people who haven't voted in city elections, also showed some might in their get-out-the-vote efforts.
Registered Democrats accounted for 55.4 percent of the electorate Tuesday, compared to the 2013 mayoral primary when Democrats made up 49.7 percent, according to a terrific analysis by Democratic consultant Matthew Isbell of Tallahassee. The GOP's share of the vote shrunk from 35.8 percent of the vote in 2013 to 32.7 percent.
"The grass roots are more energized than ever before. Democrats have a unique opportunity to work with the surge of grass roots activism we are seeing across the country. Progressive organizations like the Women's March, Fired Up Pinellas and others all helped Mayor Kriseman to finish first on Election Day," said Johanna Cervone, spokeswoman for the Florida Democratic Party, which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into helping Kriseman.
Some Democrats contend former President Barack Obama's late endorsement launched Kriseman to his narrow win. But it's hard to see how an announcement made 100 hours before election day would be a game-changer when most of the votes already had been cast.
Baker can complain all he wants about Kriseman stressing his allegiance to the Democratic Party, and Baker's to the GOP, but the partisan talk won't stop. Why would Kriseman quit when it's working?
"It's not our job to tell people what they care about. It's our job to talk to them about what they care about," said Kriseman campaign manager Jacob Smith. "In a country where the president has borderline sided with the KKK and endless bad things keep coming out of Washington, people want to talk about that."
People other than Baker, of course.
Baker won overwhelmingly African-American — and Democratic — Midtown districts with 51 percent of the vote, a testament to attention he paid when he was mayor, and his long-standing friendships, in those neighborhoods. Allies thought he could win 60 percent support, however.
Heavily funded by Republican Party activists and top-tier donors, Baker is in a box in terms of partisanship.
It might seem logical that he would distance himself from the unpopular president, but internal polls show at least 25 percent of likely city voters approve of the president's performance. Baker needs more Republicans to turn out in November, and antagonizing Trump fans is not the way to do that.
Kriseman even saves money embracing his party affiliation, because political parties pay about 30 percent less for TV ads than political committees. Baker could have the Florida GOP pay for his advertising, too, but that would undercut his insistence that partisanship is evil in municipal elections.
Here's the good news for Baker: His allies no longer have an excuse to be complacent. About 8,000 registered Republicans received mail ballots and did not return them.
"Republicans definitely have more room to grow," said Isbell, the Democratic consultant and analyst. "Republicans probably have a lot of low-hanging-fruit voters they can (target)."
So smile, Rick Baker. This race has not slipped away from you. The next two months should be a lot more interesting than you expected. And a dose of humility never hurt anyone.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.