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In Florida, a wild election ride nobody envisioned

Look what you've wrought, Charlie Crist.

Since that casual May 2009 e-mail announcing your candidacy for U.S. Senate, you've ripped apart the Florida GOP, and now it's dividing Florida Democrats. You've gone from national superstar and future presidential contender to someone banished from your lifelong party and fighting for political survival.

Not to mention the trickle-down effect: Republican fixture Bill McCollum, poised to breeze into a second term as attorney general, is now through in politics; probably so is your lieutenant governor, Jeff Kottkamp; Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the state Democratic Party's great hope, skipped re-election and is locked in an ugly, neck-and-neck race for governor against a controversial businessman no one had heard of nine months ago.

Amid the flood of nasty TV spots, robo calls and mailers, it's worth pausing at the close of the craziest election cycle in modern Florida history to review where we've landed after an 18-month political roller coaster.

Mix the worst economy in decades, a divisive president and a mutinous electorate with America's biggest battleground state and you wind up with a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up election:

• A billionaire yachter and political rookie threatening to snatch the Democratic Senate nomination but falling short.

• GOP leaders trashing a multimillionaire gubernatorial candidate and political rookie as a crook in the primary and then embracing him as their nominee in the general election.

• Florida's once invincible governor dropping from the GOP, running for Senate as an independent, and ultimately trying to get Democratic icon Bill Clinton to nudge Kendrick Meek out of the race.

"Who could have come up with this scenario two years ago?" said Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown. "If Charlie Crist had just run for governor, it's likely he would not even be challenged for re-election."

• • •

Crist's decision to run for Senate set in motion a scramble that left every statewide office open in 2010. That would have been chaotic enough, but it occurred amid a horrific economy and a president passing sweeping and controversial measures, from the stimulus package to health care.

"Clearly the failure of Barack Obama's administration to turn around this economy has affected the fates of both Republicans and Democrats alike," said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. "It's amazing all these people who all had bright political futures and are now on the verge of the political wasteland."

Indeed, Meek started running for Senate when Democrats were still basking in the popularity of Obama. Now he's running a distant third and repeatedly denying rumors he's poised to quit.

Crist, badly overestimating the hunger for bipartisanship, literally embraced Obama and his stimulus package, and saw the bottom fall out from his support. He has gone from being No. 1 on the ballot as a Republican star, to ninth as a nonpartisan underdog.

And when this all started, Marco Rubio was a hopeless dreamer taking on the leader of his party and Florida's most popular politician. Now he's set to become Florida's next U.S. senator and almost certain to be a 2012 vice presidential contender. With uncompromising conservatism, Rubio proved to be the perfect candidate at the perfect time.

Rick Scott, helped by $60 million of his own money, came out of nowhere to topple McCollum, the Republican establishment favorite for governor. Despite a breathtaking amount of baggage — his company paid $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare and Medicaid fraud — he is on the verge of being elected governor based on an anti-Obama campaign.

"A generic Republican would be up 10 points in this tidal wave,'' said Democratic consultant Karl Koch, crediting Sink's strength and Scott's weakness for keeping the race competitive.

• • •

On paper, this could be a great year for Florida Democrats: Obama narrowly won Florida in 2008; the Democrats' registration advantage over Republicans has grown to roughly 600,000 votes; and for the first time, Democrats actually have an organized and coordinated voter mobilization program in an off-year election.

At the same time, a former Republican House Speaker, Ray Sansom, and state party chairman, Jim Greer, were indicted, and an internal civil war sent the once proud Florida GOP into utter turmoil for much of the past two years.

But almost in spite of themselves, Florida Republicans are poised to sweep every statewide election, gain ground in the Legislature and pick up more congressional seats.

"We're going to get away with it," said former party chairman Tom Slade, lamenting how Florida Republican leaders lost their ethical grounding in recent years. "We're going to do a whole lot better than we ought to have on the basis of our conduct."

Credit the climate.

"It's been a 'perfect storm' for Republicans this cycle. This has been a national election about a president who campaigned as a moderate but has governed way left of center in his first two years in office — too far left for this politically centric state,'' said Republican consultant Sally Bradshaw. "Given the criminal behavior of Jim Greer, and his efforts which could have destroyed our party, and Charlie Crist's deathbed conversion to independence, it's remarkable that we're going to win a single race."

• • •

In a normal election year, Scott's baggage might have been too much to overcome, even with his record-shattering personal spending. Likewise, some Republican strategists say, controversies over Rubio's spending of campaign money and party credit cards could have seriously damaged him.

But this is a year when Republicans and independents alike are so angry and fed up that such issues have little traction. They seem to have had more relevance to Democrats, who in August rejected billionaire Senate candidate Jeff Greene amid publicity about his friendships with Mike Tyson and Heidi Fleiss.

Democrats had hoped anxiety over the economy and hunger for change in Florida would translate to voters wanting to reject Republicans, who have been leading the state for years. But all indications suggest disgust with Washington will help Republicans all the way down the ballot.

"Here in Florida, we do have this unique situation where Republicans have had tremendous problems of their own with regard to ethics and good government, transparency," said Republican consultant Chris Ingram. "And yet the Democrats have failed to recruit very strong candidates, certainly at the state House and state Senate level, and it should be a pretty good sweep for Republicans Tuesday night."

• • •

If Democrats lose across the board but pick up the governor's mansion, it will still be a hugely successful night for the minority party. Along with the veto pen, countless appointments and control over state agencies, the next governor will serve during Florida's once-a-decade redistricting process. And conventional wisdom holds that the party holding the governor's office has an advantage of two to three points in a presidential election.

After all, in two years anything can happen in Florida politics.

"Two years ago at this point there were national stories being written that the Democrats were on the verge of a perpetual majority,'' said Koch, the Democratic consultant. "Where we are today is another realization of just how quickly the political pendulum moves when it wants to."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Now it's $73 million

In Florida, a wild election ride nobody envisioned 10/30/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 31, 2010 1:40pm]
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