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Wave of conservative activism carries Rick Scott to governor's office

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.

Scott, a Naples millionaire who had never run for public office and was virtually unknown to the state before he entered the race in April, welcomed the margin of 1.3 percentage points, saying it sent a "loud and clear message."

"There were plenty of pundits and politicians and insiders who said this victory was impossible," Scott said. "The people of Florida knew exactly what they wanted."

It took all night for Scott, 57, to squeeze out a 49.9-48.6 win with a strong showing in North Florida and a weak turnout for Democrat Alex Sink in the South Florida counties that delivered the state to Barack Obama in 2008.

Potential Scott voters — and their spouses — in North Florida received a personal phone call, knock on their door or piece of mail from the Scott campaign every day but Sunday for the final two weeks of the campaign.

The effort helped Scott build a commanding lead of 142,000 votes in the 35 counties stretching from the Panhandle east to Jacksonville and south to Marion County. That region accounts for about 20 percent of the state's electorate.

Scott's cushion in North Florida absorbed the 73,000 extra votes that Sink won in Central and South Florida, where about 80 percent of the state's voters live.

"Starting today, I work for every Floridian," said Scott, whose running mate, Jennifer Carroll, is the first black woman elected Florida lieutenant governor. "I'm giving you my word: Better days are coming."

Sink's strongest victories came in counties with the weakest turnout. Fewer than 40 percent of voters cast ballots in Miami-Dade and Broward, the two counties with the most Democrats.

"The sun is shining on Florida," Sink said conceding the race Wednesday morning. "And my greatest hope is that the sun will continue to shine on the state of Florida."

Other highlights from the results:

• Scott won the seven-county Tampa Bay region, traditionally a bellwether in statewide elections, by 2 percentage points.

• Both candidates won their home counties: Collier to Scott and Hillsborough to Sink.

• Sink won the state's largest six counties.

• Scott won 15 counties, including Pasco, that Sink had captured in her successful 2006 chief financial officer campaign.

Sink, 62, had hoped for a repeat of that 2006 race, when she saturated North Florida radio with her North Carolina twang and proved to be the rare Democrat to compete in the region in a statewide race.

Sink also believed she had built a reservoir of goodwill in the area when she was one of the most outspoken state politicians after the BP oil spill ruined the Panhandle's tourist season and caused untold environmental damage to the region.

Rod Smith, Sink's running mate, said he knew things might be worse than they had expected when he spent a few days meeting people in North Florida, where he had been strong in a 2006 bid for governor and where Sink tended to the aftermath of the oil crisis.

"I had a sense in our campaign several days ago, in North Florida, that we were looking at a real tough race," he said.

The thumping in North Florida ended the second attempt at the governor's office for Sink's family. Husband Bill McBride was defeated by Republican Jeb Bush in 2002.

Democrats have not won the office since Gov. Lawton Chiles was re-elected in 1994.

Going into the night Tuesday, Sink refused to concede, hoping slow returns in South Florida would close the gap with Scott, whose victory margin gradually diminished as votes were counted.

But by Wednesday, Scott was still leading in the closest governor's race since 1876, when Democrat George Drew beat Republican Marcellus Stearns by four-tenths of 1 percent.

Sink said she had no regrets, chalking up the loss to a "tsunami" of voter distrust for government.

"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."

Scott spent a record $73 million of his own money on the race, and Sink said her campaign "had sufficient resources to be competitive."

She raised $11.3 million in more than 70,000 donations for her campaign and helped the state Democratic Party to its best fundraising period, the final two months before Election Day when it collected $31.6 million.

But her 18-month campaign struggled to find traction in a state suffering from record unemployment and a historic housing market collapse. And in the last week of the campaign, she spent three days denying she cheated in a debate after a staffer sent her a message on a cell phone in violation of the "no notes" rule.

Scott, meanwhile, capitalized on the economic anxiety and anti-incumbent sentiment with 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.

Scott heads to Tallahassee as just the second governor in the state's 165-year history to be elected with less than 50 percent of the vote. The other was Sidney Catts elected in 1916.

Scott, who barely met the seven-year residency requirement for governor, also could be Florida's most unconventional leader since Claude Kirk in 1966. Scott built the nation's largest hospital empire, Columbia/HCA, but was forced out as CEO when the federal government launched an investigation that led to historic fines for Medicare fraud.

Despite being a political neophyte, Scott ran a highly disciplined campaign that vanquished two established politicians — Sink in the general election and Attorney General Bill McCollum in the GOP primary.

"The campaign is over," Scott said Wednesday. "And Jennifer and I are eager to start bringing people together to start solving our state's problems.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Marc Caputo and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com.

Wave of conservative activism carries Rick Scott to governor's office 11/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 8:27am]
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