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What does Massachusetts vote mean to Florida? Depends on who spins it

You know Democrats have a serious problem when Republicans can pick off Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in the bluest of blue states.

They've lost their filibuster-proof majority, health care reform appears stuck in the mud, and Democrats across the country are fretting about independent voters moving toward the GOP.

"After eight years of Bush, in one year Democrats have squandered tremendous political capital they literally inherited as a gift,'' lamented longtime Democratic consultant David Brown of Broward County.

But heading into the busiest election year Florida has seen in decades, the political picture is murkier in this state than it appears nationally.

If Democrats are in such trouble in Florida, why did the party register nearly 44,000 more voters than Republicans in 2009 — including three times as many Hispanic voters? And why does the Democratic gubernatorial frontrunner, Alex Sink, have $1.5 million more in her bank account than Republican frontrunner Bill McCollum?

The hopeful theory of Florida Democrats is that voters everywhere are angry at the current leadership. In Washington — and Massachusetts — that's Democrats; in Florida, that's Republicans.

"There's a lot of negative energy everywhere, and in some respects it's probably worse in Florida. Massachusetts doesn't have a health care crisis like Florida does, and Massachusetts doesn't have 12 percent unemployment like Florida does,'' said Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, a candidate for attorney general. "Democrats running for state office in Florida have a better argument to make because, really, state policies have been totally crafted by one party, the Republicans."

Republicans cast the Bay State election as a clear rebuke to big-spending Democrats and Obama's overall agenda with major implications for Florida.

"Independents are coming back in mass to the Republican Party, and that's who decides elections in Florida,'' said Andy Palmer, director of House campaigns for the Republican Party of Florida.

A day after Republican Scott Brown's upset win in Massachusetts, it seemed everybody running for office — even Democrats — wanted to cast themselves as the next Brown.

"We saw last night that there is a strong national mood for change across the country," said Abe Dyk, campaign manager for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kendrick Meek. "Having worked as a skycap for tips, as a Florida state trooper and having led the Coalition to Reduce Class Size, Kendrick Meek is the candidate best positioned to deliver that change as a U.S. senator."

Brown is generally viewed as a moderate northeastern Republican. But Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio of Miami, who helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Brown, suggested Brown's opposition to Obama's agenda was great news for him and not for Senate rival Charlie Crist, who famously embraced the president last year and endorsed Obama's $787-billion stimulus package.

"If the Obama agenda is not safe in Massachusetts, it's certainly not safe in a Republican primary in Florida,'' Rubio said after cutting the ribbon to dedicate a new east Hillsborough Everest University facility, a for-profit institution that offers online degree programs. "(Crist) certainly supported the cornerstone of that agenda, and that's the stimulus package."

Gov. Crist called Brown to congratulate him and is certainly not embracing Obama's agenda lately.

"Scott Brown's courageous and articulate opposition to the Obama administration's government-run health care scheme has sent a message that even in America's most liberal state, voters have rejected the radical Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda,'' the governor said in a statement after the election.

Obama carried Florida by two points in 2008, but now just 44 percent of Florida voters approve of the job he is doing while 55 percent disapprove, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll last month.

For months, the Democratic frontrunner for governor, Alex Sink, has kept a careful distance from the Obama administration. She spent all Saturday in Miami assisting the Haiti relief effort but did not join fellow Democrats at either of the nearby public appearances with Vice President Joe Biden in Little Haiti and Homestead.

Sink said in an interview Wednesday that she would welcome Obama campaigning alongside her in Florida, though, "I'm angry about what I see going on in Washington just like a lot of other people are. I want to hear more about what Washington's going to do to support jobs."

Brown's victory, Sink said, points to voters' hunger for new leaders and change, which is why she expects Floridians will prefer a newcomer to politics like her rather than a career politician like McCollum, who naturally disagreed.

Scott Brown's victory, Attorney General McCollum said, was a "clear indication that in these uncertain times — marked by soaring unemployment and growing deficits — voters will not settle for smoke and mirrors and attempts to duck challenging issues."

The fallout was on full display in Washington, with many Republicans feeling emboldened.

But Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow and a candidate for Florida agriculture commissioner, was more cautious.

"Democrats should be extraordinarily concerned but Republicans shouldn't be taking a victory lap at all. They shouldn't read into that that America is in love with Republicanism. They should read into that they have fallen out of love with the Obama agenda."

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said the harsh public reaction transcends party. "Incumbents better pay attention," she said.

Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.

What does Massachusetts vote mean to Florida? Depends on who spins it 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 11:36pm]
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