FORT LAUDERDALE — Republican Rick Scott spent more of his own money than any politician in Florida history, but needed a wave of conservative activism to push him across the finish line early Wednesday morning in what appeared to be the closest governor's race in 134 years.
"Nothing in my life has honored me as much as your willingness and the willingness of everyone in Florida to put their faith in my plan to turn around the state of Florida," Scott said in a victory speech just after noon.
"There were plenty ... that said it was impossible, but the people of Florida knew exactly what they wanted. ... They sent a message loud and clear: Let's get to work."
Scott said he received a gracious phone call from Democrat Alex Sink conceding defeat and said she "ran quite a race."
"Starting today, I work for every Floridian," he said. "I'm giving you my word: Better days are coming."
Scott said he'll work in the coming days to form a transition team.
"Today the campaign is over and Jennifer and I are eager to start bringing people together to start solving our state's problems," Scott said, referencing running mate Jennifer Carroll.
Sink held a surprise news conference in Tampa around 10:30 a.m.
"We lost because of forces beyond our control — between money and the mood of the country," Sink said.
Despite those forces, Sink said she would not have done anything different. "This race was decided by less than 100,000 votes. So we just fell a little bit short."
Sink was composed when she gave her concession speech.
She said that over the course of the evening and this morning, her team had concluded "that while this is one of the closest elections in Florida history, there isn't a path to victory for us. Therefore Rick Scott will be the next governor of Florida. I have just called Rick Scott and congratulated him and I told him he'll need to work hard. He'll need to work very hard to bring our state together."
She later gathered about 100 staff and supporters for a brunch at the Tampa Marriott Waterside and gave them a pep talk, reminding the many under 40 in the crowd that they were "the future of Florida." She thanked them for their hard work and the teary-eyed crowd applauded and cheered.
Scott, spending $73 million on his campaign and promising to bring new jobs to the state, capitalized on the economic anxiety and anti-incumbent sentiment embodied by the tea party, a movement he once helped finance with a campaign-style group that fought President Barack Obama's health care changes.
On the strength of wide margins in North Florida, Scott appeared to have an advantage of 48.9 percent to 47.6 percent for Sink, which would make Scott only the second governor in state history elected with less than 50 percent of the vote. The other was Democrat Sidney Catts elected in 1916.
The outcome — which was the closest since Democrat George Drew beat Republican Marcellus Stearns by four-tenths of 1 percent in 1876 — was delayed overnight because some of the state's largest counties were unable to complete their vote counts. In Sink's home county of Hillsborough, over 30,000 early voting ballots could not be uploaded and were re-scanned.
The biggest delay Tuesday came in Palm Beach County, ground zero of the 2000 presidential election meltdown. County officials did not finish counting ballots until after 4 a.m.
A late turnout also created more than two-hour lines, WPBF-TV reported. Everyone who got in line before 7 p.m. was allowed to vote. The last ballot was cast after 9 p.m., and it was after midnight before all the ballots arrived at the tabulation center in Riviera Beach.
In Hillsborough, about 38,000 ballots from the final days of early voting failed to upload properly and had to be rescanned by hand, election officials said.
That process was done by 1 a.m. Wednesday, but provisional ballots and about 6,000 absentee ballots still hadn't been counted by 9 a.m., said Travis Abercrombie, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections. He said it's not clear when those counts will start or what time the Hillsborough County canvassing board will meet after postponing its 11 a.m. meeting.
"The memory cards from those early-voting machines just didn't properly upload," interim Secretary of State Dawn Roberts told reporters in Tallahassee on Tuesday night. "So, again, you just take the paper ballots and rescan them through the high-speed scanners."
Scott, 57, heads to Tallahassee as the state's most unconventional leader since Claude Kirk in 1966: He built the nation's largest hospital empire but was forced out as CEO as the federal government launched an investigation that led to historic fines for Medicare fraud.
Scott was a first-time political candidate who barely met the seven-year residency requirement for governor and once invoked the Fifth Amendment 75 times in a sworn deposition stemming from a business-related lawsuit.
Those political problems contributed to the negative feelings that voters had about Scott.
But Scott vanquished two established politicians — Attorney General Bill McCollum in the GOP primary and now Democratic Chief Financial Officer Sink — on the strength of a 28-week, $63 million TV advertising campaign he launched in April.
In the 10-week general election campaign, Scott's ads relentlessly attacked Sink as an "Obama liberal" who supported the health care changes and stimulus spending approved by a Democratic-led Congress.
For good measure, Scott also charged Sink would raise taxes — a claim Sink said was untrue.
Despite being a political neophyte, Scott ran a highly disciplined campaign and used a popular "Let's get to work" slogan to sum up his promise to create 700,000 jobs over the next seven years.
He also displayed a career politician's ability to dodge questions, and he avoided potentially hostile newspaper editorial boards.
At the Hilton Marina Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, where Scott had blocked off all 589 rooms, hundreds of Scott supporters packed the outdoor patio area, sipping drinks, enjoying live music and watching returns on Fox News. Scott will use his Fort Lauderdale campaign headquarters to coordinate his transition into the governor's office.
Scott and his family spent the night sequestered in a suite on the top floor, just above a huge American flag vertically draped over four floors of the hotel.
Sink, 62, ran a largely nonpartisan campaign that reflected her deliberate, risk-averse personality.
She raised $11.2 million through $500 contributions, a record for a Democratic candidate for state office. But it wasn't enough to keep up with Scott's record spending.
Scott ended the campaign with a weeklong bus tour that visited dozens of cities, where he found receptive crowds of voters eager for change.
"I feel like he's the best thing since sliced bread when it comes to running this state," said Cynthia Sucher of Oviedo, a University of Central Florida administrator who sits on the advisory board of Solantic, a Scott company.
"He knows how to create jobs," Sucher said. "He knows how to run a business. He's not beholden to anyone."
But while Scott has boasted about owing no political favors, he does have the burden of keeping a boatload of political promises.
The most pressing would be his pledge to a state suffering from double-digit unemployment that he'll create a business environment that will result in an additional 700,000 jobs over seven years.
Scott has also vowed to phase out the corporate income tax, cut property taxes by 19 percent, reduce the state work force by 5 percent, expand public school voucher programs and make business-friendly changes to the civil justice system.
Scott has said he will not accept the $130,273 yearly salary and that he and his wife will live in the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee instead of their multi-million dollar home in Naples.
He wants to sell the governor's official state jet and said he'll find another way to transport himself around the nation's fourth-largest state.
In the final week of the general election campaign, Scott visited nearly 50 cities, barnstorming the state in a large blue tour bus emblazoned with his campaign promises and the words "plan to turn Florida around."
He drew enthusiastic crowds of Republicans in most places, and former Gov. Jeb Bush gave him a rousing endorsement at a rally in Orlando. Tea party activists responded to Scott's message of cutting taxes.
"We're going to turn this state around," Scott often repeated in his stump speech.
Although he sought fundraising help in the general election from many of the same special interests he criticized during the primary campaign, Scott is in many ways an outsider.
He won the Republican nomination with most of the party's establishment actively working against him. He has never run for public office. He's a relative newcomer to Florida, having moved to the state in 2003.
"I ran because of what I believed in, and then the party agreed with what I believed in," Scott said in an interview on his campaign bus. "The thing that makes me comfortable I can do it is, big companies are the same way. People like to improve things, but change scares them.''
But that money couldn't buy an easy victory.
Scott's relatively tight win contrasted with the past three races for governor in which the GOP candidate won by an average of 10 points.
Democrats have not won the office since Gov. Lawton Chiles was re-elected in 1994.
Sink tried to make money an issue, pointing out that Scott earned his fortune running a hospital chain that was slapped with a historic $1.7 billion in Medicare fraud fines.
She ran a rare two-minute TV ad in Tampa and Jacksonville markets. The ad, styled to look like a crime show, showed Scott and a bank vault of cash. "A money trail that leads from taxpayers' wallets straight to the pockets of one mysterious man," a narrator says.
But for every weakness of Scott's that Sink attempted to exploit, Scott found a parallel on which to attack Sink.
Scott dismissed the fraud charges at his hospital company and pointed to a $6.7 million fraud fine paid by NationsBank while Sink was president of the company's Florida operations. An attorney who prosecuted the case against the bank has said Sink should not be blamed.
But Scott, a political rookie, showed a deft ability to zero in on voters' emotions. He was quick to seize on anti-immigration sentiments in the primary and then voter dissatisfaction with Washington in the general election.
Michael C. Bender can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 228-2048.