Friday, November 24, 2017

Colburn: What Scott vs. Crist tells us about Florida politics


For the past few months, it has been apparent that Florida's gubernatorial contest will pit Republican Gov. Rick Scott against former Republican governor, now Democrat, Charlie Crist.

Crist does have a Democratic primary opponent in Nan Rich, former state senator from southeast Florida, although you would never know it from the campaign ads. Crist and Scott have only occasionally referred to her candidacy.

The Scott-Crist confrontation stands as one of most extraordinary in Florida political history. There has never been a gubernatorial contest in which two candidates had previously held the state's chief executive office, let alone one in which both had served as governor from the same party.

In an earlier political era, from 1865 to 1940, Scott would have struggled to overcome his limited political experience in the state and his brief residence here. An opponent would have branded him "a carpetbagger," contending that he moved to Florida to line his pockets, and the accusation would almost surely have persuaded native Floridians to vote against him.

Crist would have fared no better. Unlike Scott, he would not have been labeled a carpetbagger in that era, since he lived most of his adult life in the state and earned his college degree from Florida State University.

But opponents would, no doubt, have called him "a scalawag" for flipping parties to enhance his election prospects. Even today many in the Republican Party regard Crist as a turncoat, while Democrats view him as a political chameleon who changed colors to further his ambitions.

So what do the candidacies of these two men tell us about our state and its politics today?

The most obvious observation is that Florida voters do not really care if a candidate has lived in the state his or her entire life, because so many voters are relatively new to Florida themselves. Approximately one-fourth of the population (five million people) have relocated to Florida from another state or another country since 2000. Many of these voters believe that someone who has resided in the state for a short period is better positioned to understand their needs.

A second observation is that many Floridians do not appear terribly concerned about whether a candidate has remained true to one party or not. A significant number of Floridians, for example, are Blue Dog Democrats — they are registered Democrat but consistently vote Republican. Additionally, the largest group of newly registered voters during the past 20 years has been independents, in part because these residents do not value party labels.

A third observation is that today's voters do not seem to care whether a candidate's political values are deeply rooted or not. Crist's history certainly seems to underscore that point. On the one occasion that he ran an issue-oriented campaign against Bob Graham for the U.S. Senate seat in 1998, he was soundly defeated. While Scott has not shifted parties, he has changed his tune on funding for public schools, mass transit and Medicaid.

Florida voters today seem more focused on state issues that affect them locally and more interested in candidates who offer solutions that will improve their job prospects, their children's future, and their well-being in retirement.

Moreover, in a state where population growth plays such a significant role and where few people share much in common as a result, the personal attributes of candidates often take center stage and that is especially true in this election. Both Crist and Scott have vied to portray themselves as the most trustworthy and reliable and to denigrate the absence of both qualities in the other.

Clearly capturing the votes of Floridians in this era is significantly different than in the past. Both Scott and Crist seem to understand that and have pitched their campaigns accordingly. Crist has emphasized his personal attributes and his dedication to the needs of all Floridians (although it is not precisely clear what this means), while Scott has asserted his leadership skills in steering the state through the economic recession (although there is debate about his policies and their effectiveness).

In such a close race, and with issues playing second fiddle to personalities and leadership styles, the campaign has the potential to turn negative quickly. Some might say it already has.

David R. Colburn is a historian at the University of Florida and author of "From Blue Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans." He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.


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