Four things to watch in Florida’s primary election

Money isn't paying off. Negative ads aren't working. Some of the most common assumptions about politics are poised to be upended today.
Jeff Greene's attacks on there Democrats running for office, including these recent mailers, may have done more to harm Greene than anyone else in the race.
Jeff Greene's attacks on there Democrats running for office, including these recent mailers, may have done more to harm Greene than anyone else in the race.
Published Aug. 28, 2018|Updated Aug. 28, 2018

Today is Florida's Primary Day and, like pretty much everything in the Donald Trump era, we're in unfamiliar political territory.

Not since 1986 have both Florida parties had competitive primaries for governor in the same cycle, and never have we had so much campaign spending — more than $150 million for the candidates running for governor alone. Some of the most common assumptions about politics are poised to be upended today. (Read up on all the candidates.)

Here are four things to watch:

1. The almighty dollar.

There is, believe it or not, a decent chance that the statewide candidates vastly outspent by their opponents will wind up winners.

This is a big deal, considering the way to become known in mega-state Florida is through TV ads, and buying a week of regular TV ads across Florida runs at least $1.2 million.

Nonetheless, the apparent frontrunners for governor, Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast and Democratic former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, spent half what their main rivals did.

In the Democratic primary, Graham spent $16.3 million, compared to $37.7 million by Miami Beach businessman Philip Levine and $34.7 million by Palm Beach investor Jeff Greene. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum spent $6.6 million and Winter Park businessman Chris King $7.8 million.

On the Republican side, DeSantis spent nearly $16.2 million, compared to $36.2 million by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Then again, Fox News provided a frequent platform on TV for DeSantis, who also enjoyed a priceless Trump endorsement.

Rick Scott threw open the door for super-rich candidates to bankroll their political ambitions when the former health care CEO spent more than $75 million on his campaign for governor in 2010.

This year, several 1-percenter candidates kicked the door to the ground. Billionaire Greene put in nearly $35 million; Levine gave his campaign more than $29 million; and King forked over more than $5.5 million.

We should get used to mega-millionaire candidates in Florida.

In the crowded, little-noticed primary for agriculture commissioner, former state Rep. Baxter Troutman of Winter Haven put $3.2 million of his own money into his campaign. And Republican state Rep. Frank White of Pensacola put $3.5 million into his.

None is a safe bet to win.

2. Nattering nabobs of negativism.

Candidates air attack ads and wage negative campaigns for one reason: It works.

Except not this primary season.

Far and away the most negative campaigners in the governor's race, Republican Putnam and Democrat Greene, head into Election Day as underdogs. Greene in particular saw a big backlash to his negative ads on TV, online and by mail, with assorted polls showing his support tumbling as he tried to cast frontrunners Graham and Levine as sleazy, threats to the environment, and/or Trump supporters.

Similarly, Putnam and his allies have spent millions on often misleading attack ads casting DeSantis as soft on immigration. Polls show they had little impact.

In the race for attorney general, Frank White ran ads falsely implying that former Circuit Judge Ashley Moody was pro-choice and a lifelong Democrat. We'll see whether that pays off in their primary race.

If you're hoping the ineffectiveness of attack ads may spare us more mudslinging in the general election, don't hold your breath. The potential backlash is always greater when a candidate is attacking a member of his own party than when attacking someone in the other party.

3. The woman factor.

Women are running for office across the country in record numbers and today we will see whether the so-called year of the woman applies to Florida as well. Democrats could nominate Graham for governor and attorney Nikki Fried for agriculture commissioner.

Keep an eye on the Republican primary for agriculture commissioner, a race even the most avid political junkies tend to tune out.

State Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers, state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Zolfo Springs, former state Rep. Troutman and former Army Col. Mike McCalister are running to succeed Putnam. Troutman has outspent the rest, but if Grimsley winds up on top, it's safe to assume her gender helped win over voters scanning a ballot listing people they know nothing about.

In these crowded races, one can also take the pessimistic view: The next Democratic nominee for governor and Republican nominee for agriculture commissioner probably will head into the general election knowing that around two-thirds of their primary voters preferred someone else.

4. Turnout.

We've heard a lot about a supposed "blue wave" that could sweep Democrats to victory in races across the country. But anyone who saw 10,000 people flock to Trump's rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds four weeks ago knows much of the Republican base is plenty fired up as well.
Republican and Democratic turnout today should give us a better handle on the enthusiasm level in Florida.

In August 2016, 1.3 million Republicans showed up to vote in the lackluster U.S. Senate primary pitting Marco Rubio against Carlos Beruff. About 1.1 million Democrats showed up in the similarly lackluster U.S. Senate primary between Patrick Murphy, Alan Grayson and Pam Keith.

Those are the baselines to look at. If Republicans or Democrats turn out at roughly the same rate as they did in August 2016, that will be an ominous sign with just 70 days to go.

William March and Langston Taylor contributed to this report.