Adam C. Smith: 8 takeaways from the St. Pete mayor's race

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman celebrated his re-election win Tuesday night at his watch party at Nova 535. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman celebrated his re-election win Tuesday night at his watch party at Nova 535. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
Published Nov. 9, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The mayor's race was Rick Baker's to lose, and with a giant assist from Donald Trump, that's what happened. The popular former mayor nearly came back in the campaign's final weeks, but fell short against Rick Kriseman because of a serious strategic miscalculation.

First, we should acknowledge what's easily overlooked in Baker's loss: He nearly unseated an incumbent mayor in a city where almost everybody sees things headed in the right direction. And, remarkably, the Republican candidate at least tied the Democrat among overwhelmingly Democratic African-American voters. That would have been a national story had Baker won.

Time for some post-Election Day quarterbacking. Here are eight takeaways from the campaign.

1. Trump.

Baker and his allies decried Kriseman's aggressive appeals to partisanship in an officially nonpartisan election. In fact, it would have been political malpractice for Kriseman not to wrap Trump around Baker and nationalize the race as he did. Baker made a terrible, and perhaps cowardly, decision to do little to distance himself from the president.

The race effectively ended in August, when President Trump spoke of the "fine people" who participated in a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, where clashes led to a woman's death.

In June, a credible Democratic poll had Kriseman trailing Baker by a virtually insurmountable 20 percentage points. Two weeks after Charlottesville, Kriseman squeaked out a win in the primary and then spent the remainder of the race bludgeoning Baker with Trump.

Now, Baker is a Jeb Bush Republican and anybody who knows him understands that he shares few of Trump's values. Baker was so scared of antagonizing Republican voters, however, that he wouldn't criticize the president's Charlottesville comments, not even as mildly as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did. As if country club Republicans on Venetian Isles would have punished him for rebuking Trump once or twice.

He made it easy for Kriseman to tell voters that voting for Baker was akin to standing behind Trump.

2. Anger, pessimism.

From day one (when he surrounded himself with former mayors, former City Council members, former legislators and assorted other formers), Baker seemed out of touch with the electorate. He spoke of a city in decline and telegraphed utter contempt toward Kriseman, whom he called the most incompetent mayor in America.

Baker apparently spent too much time venting among a select circle of friends in their own bubble, because he described a city and incumbent mayor few voters recognized. You would be hard-pressed to find a Florida city with more civic pride than St. Petersburg, but Baker campaigned too often as a sour grump.

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His post-primary reinvention — donning shades, T-shirts and a smile in light-hearted TV ads — would have been more effective at the start.

3. Kevin King.

This was the big strategic error. Negative campaigning works, and it almost worked for Baker. In late October, Baker began airing ads highlighting how King, Kriseman's longtime, right-hand man and current chief of staff, had been arrested — never convicted — in 2001 for inappropriate behavior with underage girls, including propositioning a 14-year-old.

At the time, Kriseman was cruising, leading in one private poll by nine percentage points. That lead quickly evaporated as the King ads ran. The problem for Baker? Mail voting had been under way for two weeks before Baker started aggressively hammering Kriseman's judgment. It's highly plausible Baker could be mayor-elect had those King ads begun two weeks earlier.

4. Party support.

In a development that no one expected, Kriseman wound up with more money and significantly more TV ads than Baker. A big reason is because Kriseman raised money for the state Democratic Party that by law pays much less for TV ads than independent political committees.

Baker was so fixated on avoiding partisanship and ties to the Florida GOP that he had significantly fewer ads reaching late-deciding voters. Maybe that made sense in the primary, but not in the general election when much of his money came from Republican legislators anyway.

5. Democratic energy.

Without question, Democrats showed far more fire than Republicans and a bigger, better get-out-the-vote operation. That, and Trump's damage to the Baker campaign, should worry Republicans headed toward a busy 2018 election, though the president is considerably more popular statewide than within Democratic-heavy St. Pete.

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel took a risk throwing the state party into a race that at one point looked like an uphill climb. But Florida Democrats are now 2 for 2 in highly competitive races, having also picked up a state Senate seat in Miami-Dade in September.

The Kriseman campaign included some of the brightest lights among Florida's growing stable of Democratic operatives, including campaign manager Jacob Smith, senior adviser Omar Khan and pollster Tom Eldon.

6. Climate change.

Kriseman's focus on the issue worked. Plenty of other candidates across the country, including 2014 gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, have tried to do the same with little payoff. Kriseman's team hammered on Baker questioning how much human activity contributes to sea-level rise, and found it resonated strongly in St. Petersburg.

7. Pride politics.

Baker's skittishness about the St. Pete Pride Festival generated little attention after the primary, but don't underestimate the damage it did to his image among otherwise supportive voters.

His obvious unease with gay rights helped solidify the knock that Baker would be a dinosaur leading a progressive city. An electorate that has elected multiple gay City Council members is not made for a candidate who compared raising a Pride flag at City Hall once a year to flying an anti-abortion flag.

8. Wake-up call.

Tuesday's results should give Kriseman a strong dose of humility. He nearly lost an election that on paper should have been a lay-up. That reflects not just Baker's strength, but a widespread desire for Kriseman to change elements of his leadership style.

Unforced errors abounded in Kriseman's first term, but communication would be a good place to start. Kriseman's biggest liability, the sewage spills, would have been far less damaging had his administration not responded with evasiveness, obfuscation and weasely parsing of the facts.

After winning the most competitive mayor's race this city has faced in decades, Kriseman should try to understand his role in making it so competitive.

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.