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Expecting a 2010 victory lap, Democrats hit the wall

Republican Sen.-elect Marco Rubio is greeted by former Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday in Coral Gables. Rubio cautioned against the GOP taking victories as an unequivocal voter endorsement.

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Republican Sen.-elect Marco Rubio is greeted by former Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday in Coral Gables. Rubio cautioned against the GOP taking victories as an unequivocal voter endorsement.

Is Florida the biggest battleground state in the country or simply the moodiest?

In the giddy aftermath of helping the Democratic Party take Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008, Florida Democrats thought their time had finally come.

With five statewide seats in play, President Barack Obama's vaunted grass roots network in place, and a state GOP rocked by scandal, Democrats were confident of loosening the GOP grip on Tallahassee and expanding their influence in Washington.

They got slaughtered.

Republicans won every one of those five seats -— for U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner.

Four Democratic members of Congress went down. And the GOP expanded its control over the state Legislature to reach veto-proof majorities in both chambers.

"I'm voting to toss out the whole agenda of the Democrats," said 42-year-old Omar Clemente, who voted a straight Republican ticket at his West Kendall precinct.

"They were given a mandate in '08 and instead of helping us, they used it to work against the people. They're arrogant."

In Florida, the GOP wave of 2010 makes 2008 look like an aberration and 2012 look like an opportunity for vengeance.

Republican presidential contenders can turn to an abundance of party leaders to make introductions and a proven party organization to turn out voters.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party boasts only one statewide officeholder, Sen. Bill Nelson.

Still, Florida Republicans assessing the election's results on Wednesday were wary of gloating that the state had returned to its natural resting place.

"It would be a tremendous mistake to assume that last night in Florida was some sort of an embrace of the Republican Party and that we are entering a GOP era," said Sen.-elect Marco Rubio. "Last night was nothing more than a second chance."

Republicans will face the same fate that met Democrats in 2010, Rubio said, if they don't fulfill the promises they made to cut spending, reduce the deficit and lower taxes. "I think Florida can never and will never be taken for granted by any party," he said.

Tuesday's election offered only dim rays of hope for Florida Democrats. Voters passed constitutional amendments opposed by the GOP to reform the way voting districts are drawn and rejected a push to loosen class size restrictions. And in the Tampa Bay area, two-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor overcame a challenge from Republican Mike Prendergast, a retired U.S. Army colonel.

But those were the exceptions.

"Those voters in the middle are subject to the moods of the day and the situation of the day, and last night voters in the middle were upset with the economy and direction of the country and voted against the Democrats that were in power," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the Rothenberg Report.

Several Republicans won Tuesday despite heavy political baggage.

Republican David Rivera was elected to Congress despite a string of bad publicity over discrepancies on his financial disclosure forms, ties to a businessman who does work in Cuba, and a car crash with a truck carrying his campaign opponent's mailers. Rick Scott overcame persistent questions about his lack of political experience and his former company's Medicare fraud scandal to win the governor's race.

Republican strategist David Johnson explained Florida's political whiplash by pointing out the differences between the turnout in midterm years and presidential elections, which tend to draw a larger, younger and more diverse crowd.

"Those two different electorates are the difference between Rick Scott winning by 1.3 points and John McCain losing by more than 2.5 points," said Johnson, referring to the Republican winner of the 2010 governor's race and loser of the 2008 presidential campaign.

Democratic political consultant Steve Schale led Obama's campaign in Florida and advised Alex Sink, the Democratic candidate for governor this year. He said the lesson of 2010 is simple: When the economy is down, the majority party pays the price.

"Given that 1 million people are out of work and just as many are afraid they will be, and given the anger and frustration in Washington, my party is the one in power and the one that takes the hit," Schale said. "So much about politics is timing and opportunity. I told one Democratic candidate that the worst decision he made in the campaign was to run in 2010."

Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

Expecting a 2010 victory lap, Democrats hit the wall 11/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 11:36am]
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