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Florida’s top 10 political stories in 2018

2018 was one of the craziest election years in recent Florida history. Let's take a look back, shall we?
President Donald Trump talks with Republican Gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, left, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, after arriving on Air Force One at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers on Wednesday. Trump is in Florida to speak at a rally. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Published Dec. 20, 2018

Take open races for every statewide office in Florida government. Add a dozen proposed changes to the state constitution, Sen. Bill Nelson's toughest ever reelection campaign, and a bunch of highly competitive congressional and legislative.

Overlay all that with the giant shadow of Donald Trump and Florida's normal electoral weirdness, and you get one of the most volatile, edge-of-your-seat election cycles in state history. It will be a long time before we see as many open and unpredictable races as
saw in 2018.

Let's review the 10 biggest political stories. In no particular order:

1. Anti-establishment primaries

Putnam (left) and Graham (right)

Not so long ago, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam not only would be the Republican nominee for governor, but would also become Florida's next governor. Turned out this was a lousy time to be a career politician or member of the political establishment.

Thanks mainly to an endorsement from President Trump, a little-known and often awkward candidate named Ron DeSantis crushed Putnam in the Republican primary by 20 percentage points.

Putnam had all the advantages — record-breaking money, affection from GOP activists and money-raisers across the state, and deep knowledge of Florida issues. DeSantis showed little depth on Florida issues and spent most the race campaigning from Washington via Fox News interviews, but Trump's nod proved more than enough.

Similarly, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham seemed to have greater assets in the Democratic primary for governor — personal appeal, the network that comes from being the daughter of popular former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, and the widespread impression that she was the
heavy favorite.

Graham's candidacy never lived up to its potential, however. Her cautious, moderate, and conventional agenda failed to excite her party's base. Fired up Democratic activists gravitated toward Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, even though his fundraising nearly dried up amid concerns about an ongoing federal corruption investigation. Enter billionaire investor Jeff Greene, who spent millions attacking Graham and the other leading contender, former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and enabled Gillum to pull an upset.

2. Bill Nelson's luck finally ran out.

In this Aug. 6 photo Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., listens during a roundtable discussion with education leaders from South Florida at the United Teachers of Dade headquarters in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky,)

Often called Florida's luckiest politician, Nelson had faced lackluster or disastrous Republican opponents — former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum in 2000, Katherine Harris in 2006, Connie Mack IV in 2012. This year he drew Gov. Rick Scott, a highly disciplined and relentless campaigner with virtually unlimited resources.

"Landslide Rick" squeaked to victory in his two governor's races, and this year was no different. The governor won by less than a quarter of a percentage point, despite overwhelmingly outspending career politician Nelson. Scott spent $65 million of his own money, bringing to $140 million the personal money he has spent to win elections since 2010.

3. The Trump effect.

President Donald Trump arrives at Pensacola International Airport for a campaign rally Saturday in Pensacola. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Democrats expected a blue wave thanks to backlash against Donald Trump. It was more like a blue wake than wave. Democrats lost the two biggies – governor and U.S. Senate, but elected Nikki Fried agriculture commissioner, gained two congressional seats in south Florida, seven state House seats, and one state Senate seat, the south Tampa seat where Democrat Janet Cruz unseated Dana Young.

Trump can take credit for the DeSantis and Scott victories, having campaigned in Florida twice in the final week of the campaign to rev up his base. Even Scott, who had kept his distance from the divisive president throughout the campaign, embraced him at the end.

4. Gillum vs. DeSantis.

Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, left, shakes hands with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum after a CNN debate, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Democratic gubernatorial nominee had a natural charm and passion and likeability rarely seen among Democrats in modern history. DeSantis on the campaign trail often looked like he'd rather be somewhere else.

He kicked off his general election sounding like he might be a racist, saying Florida voters would "monkey this up" by electing the first African-American governor. A campaign shakeup a few weeks into the general election apparently helped right the ship, as DeSantis defied virtually all the public polls to beat Gillum.

5. Recounts.

A Republican observer looks at a ballot during a hand recount, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018, at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections office in Lauderhill, Fla. Florida’s acrimonious U.S. Senate contest is headed to a legally required hand recount after an initial review by ballot-counting machines showed Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson separated by fewer than 13,000 votes. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) FLWL102

Eighteen years after the "butterfly ballot" election of 2000, Florida reminded the world that election tallies have margins of error just as polls do and that the bedrock of our democracy — voting — remains alarmingly flawed.

Several legislative races and three statewide races – Senate, governor, agriculture commissioner – were so close that recounts by machine and/or hand had to be conducted. The virtually tied elections exposed inept elections administrators in Broward and Palm Beach counties, inconsistencies on how signatures are reviewed, how and when mail ballots are accepted, and between one machine tally to another machine tally. Legislators will grapple with these issues this year.

6. Felon voting.

Supporters of voting rights for felons marched in Fort Lauderdale [STEVE BOUSQUET - Times]
Supporters of voting rights for felons marched in Fort Lauderdale [STEVE BOUSQUET – Times]
Nearly two thirds of Floridians voted to approve the largest expansion of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Florida was one of four states preventing felons from voting after they completed their sentences and “Amendment 4” automatically restores voting rights to people who have completed their full sentences, except those convicted of murder or a sexual offense.

More than a million Floridians stand to regain their right to vote, though it remains to be seen how state leaders and county elections offices implement the change to Florida's constitution.

7. Red tide, blue-green algae.

LUIS SANTANA | Times Tens of thousands of dead fish and crustaceans have washed up on Madeira Beach in Pinellas County Sunday afternoon. Levels of red tide algae are testing extremely high on the waters of Pinellas county. Contractors on boats attempt to collect the dead fish before reaching the beaches but cannot keep up with the tons of fish washing ashore. [Sunday September 15, 2018] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
LUIS SANTANA | Times
Tens of thousands of dead fish and crustaceans have washed up on Madeira Beach in Pinellas County Sunday afternoon. Levels of red tide algae are testing extremely high on the waters of Pinellas county. Contractors on boats attempt to collect the dead fish before reaching the beaches but cannot keep up with the tons of fish washing ashore. [Sunday September 15, 2018] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
It has been decades since the environment has been such a hot topic among statewide candidates. Algae blooms around Lake Okeechobee and red tide along all three of Florida’s coasts affected tens of thousands of Florida residents. In the Senate race, the crisis had Bill Nelson and Rick Scott pointing fingers at one another and trying to claim the environmental mantle.

DeSantis will be the first governor in Florida history who is overtly hostile to the politically influential sugar industry, considered by many to be the main culprit in the algae problem.

8. Parkland.

Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., closes her eyes and cries as she stands silently at the podium for the amount of time it took the Parkland shooter to go on his killing spree during the “March for Our Lives” rally in support of gun control in Washington, Saturday, March 24, 2018. Alex Brandon AP

The massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School led to an unprecedented move by a Republican controlled Florida legislature: New gun control restrictions, albeit modest ones including banning firearms purchases by anyone under 21, banning the sale of so-called "bump stocks" that enables semiautomatic weapons to fire like automatic weapons, and prohibited firearms purchases and ownership by people who have been "committed to a mental institution."

What did not happen is a massive increase in young voters turning out to push for more significant gun control, as many people had predicted.

9. Hurricanes.

An American flag is displayed using sandbags in the coastal township of Mexico Beach, population 1200, which lay devastated on Friday (10/12/18) after Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle. (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)

These always have political repercussions. Rick Scott began his campaign for governor with his strongest approval ratings of his two terms thanks to how Floridians saw his handling of hurricanes Irma and Maria. When Hurricane Michael bore down on north Florida, Scott donned his blue Navy cap again went into full disaster governor mode, officially leaving the campaign trail for weeks.

Republicans worried the influx of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans into central Florida after Hurricane Maria would tilt the electorate toward the Democrats. It did not. Scott threw resources at helping transplanted Puerto Ricans and visited the island repeatedly and won praise from Puerto Rican voters of all political stripes.

10. #MeToo in Florida

Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek (right) and Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, (center) both were sponsors of bills to combat sexual harassment during the 2018 session. The bills failed. SCOTT KEELER | Times

Sexual misconduct in Tallahassee proved to be the big issue that wasn't.

Following a spate of revelations in late 2017 about sleazy behavior by legislators – notably leading to the resignation of powerful state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater – sexual harassment and misconduct had been expected to be a big and uncomfortable issue for state lawmakers this year.

Instead, the Parkland shooting pushed it aside.

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