Florida Democrats chip away at GOP power in Tallahassee

Published Nov. 8, 2012

TALLAHASSEE — Before Tuesday, Florida Republicans had the wind at their back — record amounts of special interest money, a veto-proof majority in the Legislature and unbridled power all over the state.

But the muscle flexing appeared to backfire and the special interest money, this time, did not translate into landslide victories. Voters delivered a series of election night losses for Florida's power party. President Barack Obama holds a lead over Mitt Romney. Legislature-backed amendments were mostly defeated. The GOP drive to remake the Supreme Court failed, and the Republicans lost their supermajority in the House and Senate.

Even the projected future speaker of the House — one of the most moneyed and powerful Republicans in the state — is in danger of losing his seat to an underfunded political neophyte.

"Florida sent a clear message to us as legislators that they are not pleased with the direction we're taking them," said former senator and Rep.-elect Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican. "I think a message was sent (Tuesday) night to the Legislature, and to Gov. (Rick) Scott."

Led by Scott, the Legislature has tacked sharply to the right in the past two years, passing or pursuing measures backed by the tea party and the business lobby, while slashing funding for schools and social programs.

Voters, in turn, moved the opposite direction Tuesday, throwing out as many as five GOP incumbents from the Legislature and swinging several open seats to Democrats. Projected future House Speaker Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, appears to have lost a razor-thin race despite outspending his little-known opponent more than 7-to-1. The race is likely headed for a recount, but Democratic challenger Mike Clelland led by 37 votes as of Wednesday.

Republicans still came out far ahead, with more than 100 of the 160 legislative seats.

But Democrats — marginalized in Florida state politics since the late 1990s — spent the night rejoicing over their modest gains in the Legislature, as well as congressional upsets and the re-election of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Obama.

"Each time you improve your performance, resources follow,'' said Rod Smith, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "We've got to show success before we gain in resources."

In some ways, the results were a pivot toward equilibrium. No other state in the country has such a massive chasm between the party makeup of its electorate and its Legislature.

Registered Democrats in Florida outnumber Republicans by more than 400,000, but the GOP dominates the state Capitol, occupying 100 percent of the Cabinet and a veto-proof 68 percent of the Legislature before Tuesday.

A huge money advantage and the power to shape the state's legislative districts has favored the Republicans, who have controlled the governor's office and the state Legislature for nearly 15 years.

Donors poured more than $75 million into the Republican Party and GOP lawmakers' personal committees this cycle, easily tripling what Democrats raised.

Republican leaders say the Democrats' gains were, in part, a result of once-a-decade redistricting that had to be done without bias toward a particular party.

"We knew they would be tough," incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said of the races that flipped to Democrats. "People wanted fair and competitive districts, and that's what we gave them."

Some Democratic strategists see it differently. They blame Republicans for pushing a far right-wing agenda that has alienated voters in the country's largest swing state.

In recent years, the Legislature has tried to force drug testing for welfare recipients, penalties for doctors who ask patients about guns, higher tuition for U.S. citizens with undocumented parents and other measures — only to see judges rule them unconstitutional.

This year, Republican leaders sought to extend their sphere of influence to the judicial branch, which has at times stood as a sole impediment for GOP-backed measures.

In September, the Republican Party of Florida took the unprecedented move of opposing the retention of three Supreme Court justices it deemed too liberal.

Voters did not agree. They voted to retain all three justices by overwhelming margins, blocking Scott from an opportunity to reshape Florida's highest court. Floridians also rejected Amendment 5, which would have given the Legislature a greater say over the affairs of the judicial branch.

Lawmakers also stacked the ballot with 10 other lengthy, complicated amendments, which partly led to long lines at voting precincts. Critics saw the measures — and a cutback in early voting days — as a cynical attempt to suppress voter turnout.

Voters responded by turning out in record numbers, and striking down eight of the amendments. Failed proposals included property tax cuts, additional abortion restrictions and a rejection of Obama's federal health care overhaul.

"I think what happened in the last couple of years is that conservatives became very emboldened by the amount of power that conservatives appeared to have," said Lynda Russell, a Democrat and lobbyist for the teachers' union. "Conservatives tried to take advantage of that power. But their efforts actually galvanized the labor community."

The gains in the House and Senate mean Republicans no longer have a veto-proof supermajority in either chamber. While legislative power still rests firmly in the hands of the GOP, the Democratic gains may hinder some laws from moving forward.

Controversial measures like privatizing state prisons and flipping public schools into charter schools failed last year in razor-thin votes in the 40-seat Senate. With more Democrats now in that chamber, these proposals could face more hurdles next year.

Boosted by Obama and Nelson's statewide victories, Democrats already have their eyes on 2014, when races for governor and several Cabinet positions will be held.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist took to the national airwaves to bash Scott on Tuesday night, blaming him for the long lines that in some places stretched for more than six hours.

Crist, who may be posturing to run as a Democrat against Scott in 2014, called Democratic victories and high voter turnout a "backlash" against a governor and Legislature who want to suppress voters.

"It's kind of like when somebody tells you, you can't do something, you really want to do it," Crist, who extended early voting in 2008, said on MSNBC. "(Voters) become unsatisfied, they become frustrated, they become infuriated."

Reporters asked Scott on Wednesday if he was worried that a similar backlash could oust him from office in 2014.

He demurred.

"I travel the state every day. I talk to families every day," he said. "I know what they care about and it's what I'm focused on."

Times/Herald staff writers Brittany Alana Davis, Tia Mitchell, Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.