ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman’s campaign team had little doubt about one key strategy in his re-election bid this summer.
President Donald Trump was seemingly on every voter’s mind. And though the mayoral race was supposed to be non-partisan, Kriseman, a Democrat, chose to hammer opponent Rick Baker as a Republican tied to the party — and unpopular policies — of Trump.
"It was a no-brainer," said Jacob Smith, Kriseman’s campaign manager. "Almost daily we see our civil liberties and our rights being eroded by the White House. We reject the assumption that this shouldn’t be a partisan race, especially in 2017."
The approach appeared to work in stoking progressive voters, according to voting data and election experts. Democratic turnout, typically low in municipal elections, rose to unprecedented highs compared to recent history, according to an unofficial count from the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections.
Of 78,000 registered Democrats, 43 percent cast ballots in Tuesday’s election, up more than 4,560 votes from the primary. Republican turnout rose too, but not enough to hold off Democrats and produce a Baker win.
A Tampa Bay Times analysis shows that a surge of Democratic voters who hadn’t cast ballots in the primary likely tipped the scales in Kriseman’s favor.
The victory could provide momentum and a blueprint for the Florida Democratic Party before crucial midterm elections in 2018.
"We’re in this alignment right now that our politics are hyper-nationalized," said Tallahassee-based Democratic strategist Steve Schale. "You want to force Republicans to answer for Trump."
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The Kriseman re-election effort was modeled after Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, which Smith worked on as a volunteer and later as a paid staffer.
The central idea: "Talk to as many people as possible," he said. "Have as many meaningful conversations as possible."
In the final four days before the election, hundreds of Kriseman campaigners knocked on about 20,000 doors across St. Petersburg, according to Smith. They spent months building a database of 10,000 Kriseman supporters they targeted to get to the polls.
Smith knew Democratic turnout would be critical and learned from Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign to "take no vote for granted."
Kriseman volunteers tried to drum up interest among voters who hadn’t turned out for municipal elections before. A good way to do that? Bring up the president.
"Donald Trump was a part of our messaging there," Smith said.
The Kriseman camp especially targeted disengaged voters under the age of 30. Workers used new programs to text voters, in addition to calling them, putting out direct messages in bulk.
"It allowed us to have absolutely thousands more touches on people than we would have otherwise," Smith said.
Vince Cocks, a fervid Kriseman volunteer, started the summer knocking on doors around Pinellas Point, talking up the mayor’s progressive record without mentioning Trump. As the year wore on, Cocks said, the campaign spoke more about political parties and the president.
"It evolved into the partisan-type arena, and I have no problem with that," Cocks said. "Our city and the way it is run really depends a lot on what kind of administration runs this state and runs the country."
Smith said "in the summer especially" the campaign trained volunteers "to talk about the issues that were on the top of people’s minds." Meanwhile, Baker touted his role as a manager, focusing on the minutiae of municipal politics.
"Rick Baker talked about dog parks," Smith said. "And we talked about climate change."
Just before the primary, Obama endorsed Kriseman, whose support was flagging from a crisis over the city dumping millions of gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay. The Florida Democratic Party sent staffers and money into St. Petersburg, hoping to hold onto the city just west of the all-important Interstate 4 corridor, said party spokeswoman Johanna Cervone.
Kriseman managed a surprising 70-vote lead over Baker, a popular former mayor, in the August primary, giving him momentum headed into the general election.
"Kriseman had to persuade a lot of Democrats to sort of come back to him," said Schale, the Tallahassee strategist. "He did that by talking about his progressive record as mayor — and also by talking about Trump."
It was just enough; some Democrats clearly backed Baker, as Kriseman only won by about 3 points Tuesday despite the city having far more registered Democrats than Republicans.
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Many political observers agree: Trump was an anchor weighing down Baker in a progressive city.
He said little to counter Kriseman’s attack beyond accusing the incumbent of turning to partisanship instead of running on his record.
"It was a very difficult task for Baker," said emeritus University of South Florida government professor Darryl Paulson. "The more he tried to separate himself from Trump, the more he risked alienating himself from Trump voters" he needed to beat Kriseman.
Republicans also showed up in record numbers for the general election: 47 percent cast ballots, a jump of 3,587 voters compared to the primary. But despite stronger turnout, only 22,123 Republicans voted to the Democrats’ 33,790.
"Had (Baker) early on came to a place where he was able to talk about Trump he might have been able to mitigate it," Schale said. "But the longer that it went, it made it easier for voters who wanted to show up and send a message to Trump to do that."
Kriseman "rode an anti-Trump wave into office," said Baker supporter Deveron Gibbons. "You just have to be kind of up front and say I don’t agree with the Trump stuff."
Paulson, a longtime Republican who changed his affiliation because of Trump, said GOP candidates need to come up with a better answer than Baker had when the president comes up in the next round of elections.
"Everything looks very good for the Democrats," Paulson said. "There’s an old maxim in politics: You either run unopposed, or you run scared. If I were a Republican, I’d be running scared."
Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804.