Gov. Rick Scott, who came out of nowhere to win the governor's race four years ago with $75 million of his own money and a potent "Let's Get to Work" campaign mantra, on Tuesday became the second Republican since Reconstruction to win two terms as Florida governor.
He narrowly beat former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who practically moved to South Florida to drive up what is typically anemic Democratic turnout. It wasn't enough for the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat to pull off what would have been one of the greatest political comebacks of all time.
The squeaker conclusion to the country's most expensive race of 2014 showed how, 14 years after a tied presidential election stunned the world, Florida remains as starkly divided and polarized today as ever.
"I just received a call from Charlie Crist. He was very gracious. I have two great pieces of news for the people of Florida: First, I'm not going to give a long speech. And second, the campaign is over," Gov. Scott declared late Tuesday.
"It's time to put all the division behind us and come together. Forget the partisanship. Florida is a mission — and that is to keep growing," he said, promising, "I will not let up. We will become No. 1" in job creation.
Crist also called for unity.
"We need to come together, we really do. Losing is not fun, but what's really important is we need to come together as a state" Crist said, suggesting that expanding Medicaid to a million uninsured Floridians would go a long way in that direction.
"It's been about right versus wrong," he said, "and I hope as Floridians as we go forward, we can focus on that."
Crist and his Democratic allies were overwhelmingly outspent as in 2010 and lost to one of the most vulnerable governors in America and led already beleaguered Florida Democrats to their lowest depths ever.
Florida Democrats bet their future on a life-long Republican, banking that winning their first governor's race since 1994 would enable them to raise the money to rebuild their party and return political balance to Tallahassee.
In a state that increasingly leans Democratic in presidential races, Democrats are virtually irrelevant in Tallahassee, and may be even more so with the loss of legislative seats Tuesday.
"I think we have some soul-searching to do. Definitely. But you can't discount the power of tens of millions of dollars of negative advertising," said Alex Sink, who lost to Scott four years ago by just over 1 percentage point.
The Florida Democratic Party could not even field viable candidates for the statewide offices of agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer, while Democratic attorney general candidate George Sheldon was unable to afford to air a single TV ad in his campaign against the controversial Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi.
As newly re-elected Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater are immediately in position to gear up strong gubernatorial campaigns in 2018, what passes for a Democratic bench includes Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Gwen Graham, who beat Republican Congressman Steve Southerland in north Florida on Tuesday.
Despite what looked likely to be a long night — even before the Panhandle polls closed at 8 p.m. Eastern Time, cable TV pundits were marveling at another virtually tied Florida election — the race was called in Scott's favor at about 10:20 p.m.
Florida being Florida, the election had to have a legal challenge. The Broward County Democratic Party and Crist campaign filed an emergency motion to extend voting hours from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., citing "system breakdowns," long waiting lines and confusion over moved voting locations. A judge rejected the motion.
Democrats have won the past two presidential races in Florida, but low Democratic turnout in midterm elections has helped Republicans win the past four governor's races. Crist had hoped to buck that trend by mounting a more aggressive get-out-the-vote operation in South Florida this year.
Democrats were buoyed by what they saw with the votes cast before Election Day by mail and in-person at early voting sites.
Four years ago, in a tea party wave election for the GOP across the country, more than 270,000 more Republicans had voted by Election Day than Democrats, and Scott went on to beat Sink by 61,000 votes, just over 1 percentage point.
On Tuesday, about 100,000 more Republicans had voted than Democrats, and Crist supporters were optimistic they could overtake him.
Just as Barack Obama won Florida for a second time on the tide of an improving economy, so did Scott. But in a sign of the negative campaign, Scott received 488,000 fewer votes than the unsuccessful medical marijuana initiative.
At Scott's election night party at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs, Republicans cheered as big-screen TVs showed the governor pulling out to a lead of more than 100,000 votes (at about 8:30 p.m.), but many Democratic votes from South Florida had still not been tallied. The ballroom was about half full.
"It's wonderful. It's wonderful," said Kathy McMichael of Estero, a retiree who has been working the phones at a Scott headquarters. "People realize that we need a governor who can continue the job growth Florida has had."
A small gaggle of lobbyists sipped Heineken beers in the hotel's bar, sounding confident that Scott would squeak out a victory. "It looks good," said Brian Ballard, a top GOP money-raiser who used to help Crist win as a Republican.
Others watching returns included lobbyists Bob Coker of U.S. Sugar; Nick Iarossi, who represents the gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson; state Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who will leave office in two weeks.
"Democrats have proven that they don't know how to turn out their base in non-presidential years," Weatherford said. "I think Gov. Scott's campaign has been a very effective one. They've been disciplined,. They've just kind of plodded along and stuck to a message, and Republicans are motivated to show up at the polls to vote against Charlie."
Weatherford shook his head at the news that the Democrats tried to get a judge to extend voting in Broward: "He's losing, and they're desperate."
Crist held his election party, as usual, at the Renaissance Vinoy in St. Petersburg, where an enthusiastic crowd of several hundred sipped cocktails and snacked on cheese and veggie cups while watching the early results broadcast on a big screen. It felt like a party, even as the results flipped back and forth early in the night, but by 9 p.m., when Scott's lead stood at about 120,000 votes, the mood grew more tense without good news to cheer.
DNC Chair and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at one point was on her phone in the parking lot outside, pacing and sitting on a curb. A good chunk of the crowd relaxed outside on a patio, some smoking cigars.
Inside the ballroom, Riverview hairstylist Michelle Jones, 48, wandered around with her niece, aunt and cousin. Jones said she will feel "betrayed" by voters who give Scott a victory. She supported Crist even when he was a Republican leading the state because she felt he is "an honest man." Scott has taken credit for the state's economic recovery while ignoring the national recovery under President Obama, she said, and she is still appalled that he killed the high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando.
"I feel as though Rick Scott is not an honest person, and people who believe in him and his policies are who I will feel betrayed by," Jones said.
Crist's party drew the state's most high-profile Democrats to St. Petersburg, with Sen. Bill Nelson and U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor of Tampa and Wasserman Schultz showing up early in the evening to give sound bites to national and local media and talk up the party's success in increasing voter turnout from the 2010 election.
"We have injected some new voters, more than enough new voters, into the electorate compared to 2010 that are our voters and that are going to make a very big difference," said Wasserman Schultz.
Nelson dismissed reports of low turnout in South Florida, saying "I have to live in the world of the practical." He threw in last-minute jabs at Scott, too.
"In the last four years, Florida has gone into the ditch on such things as transportation and education and just common sense things like sea level rise," he said.
Exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and networks found that Crist was strongest among African-Americans, Hispanics, moderates and younger voters. African-Americans supported Crist over Scott by almost 8-to-1, and Crist's support among Hispanics was almost 20 points higher than it was for Scott. In fact, Scott's support among Hispanics dropped by around a dozen points compared to the 2010 gubernatorial race. Crist also appealed to voters under the age of 40, and also voters who identified themselves as "moderate."
White voters overwhelmingly supported Scott. Scott's appeal to voters who identify as "independent" also dropped by about 10 percentage points compared to four years ago. Voters without a college degree favored Scott over Crist, as did voters earning more than $100,000 a year and Catholic and Protestant voters
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.