1. Florida Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's weak win leaves power with Republican Legislature

Rick Scott speaks Tuesday at Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs after winning re-election without a majority of votes.
Rick Scott speaks Tuesday at Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Bonita Springs after winning re-election without a majority of votes.
Published Nov. 9, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — The biggest winner in Florida's 2014 election was the Republican-dominated Legislature. It coasted to victory with little effort, broke fundraising records and came away with enough political power to control the agenda — even that of Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida voters gave the governor four more years in office, but more people voted against him than for him. Unofficial election returns gave Scott a 1.1 percent victory over Democrat Charlie Crist, a margin of nearly 66,000 votes out of 6 million cast, nearly identical to Scott's 61,550-vote win over Alex Sink four years ago. Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie got 223,000 votes.

By contrast, Republicans in the Legislature picked up a supermajority in the House and preserved a majority in the Senate, essentially restoring the numbers they had in 2010 when Scott was first elected in the tea party wave.

The results are a reminder that Florida remains a deeply divided state with a majority that swings right during the midterm elections but swings left in presidential years.

The returns also show that, even in a year in which Republicans swept most competitive seats and the Florida GOP invested more than $100 million in re-electing the governor, Scott's political persona remains weak. He will go down in history as the only politician to be elected Florida's governor twice without getting a majority of the vote either time.

"There is no mandate for Rick Scott," Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant said. "We're going to continue to hold him accountable. He does not have the support that he thinks he has."

As a result, Republicans in the Legislature are expected to set the state's agenda and shape it, as they have done in Scott's first four years.

"We're going to pick up right where we left off,'' said Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, the incoming House speaker. "We will continue to work on what we've been working on — providing a good environment for businesses to create jobs and a lower unemployment rate."

Tuesday's exit polls showed that 73 percent of Floridians are very much worried about the economy, even as the state unemployment rate plummeted from 11 percent in 2010 to 6.3 percent this year.

Scott's re-election message focused on creating jobs, but he offered few policy details, leaving room for the Legislature to determine what that means.

"It's time to put all the division behind us and come together," Scott told a cheering crowd of supporters in Bonita Springs after his victory. "Forget about all the partisanship. Florida is on a mission."

That mission, as Scott defines it, is to keep growing, creating jobs and improving the state's quality of life. To achieve that, he has made a series of campaign promises he must fulfill, such as cutting $1 billion in taxes, adding $1 billion in spending on the environment, and increasing money for schools, seaports and job training.

For Scott, it's a mission without a mandate. Even as they toasted his re-election victory, lobbyists at a Hyatt hotel bar in Bonita Springs were jokingly calling him "Landslide Rick."

He also is clearly the least popular Republican in Florida, having received fewer votes than Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, and 500,000 fewer votes than the medical marijuana amendment, which failed because it did not get the required 60 percent approval.

According to exit polls by CNN and the Associated Press, 44 percent said they had a favorable view of Scott — compared with 51 percent who said they had a favorable view of Crist.

As the Democrats focused on electing Crist, they fielded weaker candidates and raised less money, while Republicans stockpiled more than $200 million in special-interest campaign cash. As a result, the GOP easily held onto its 26-14 Senate majority and recaptured six Democrat-held House seats for a veto-proof 81-39 advantage for the next two years.

It would appear that Scott has more support than ever in the Legislature, but in Florida's Capitol looks can be deceiving.

"A two-term, re-elected Republican governor with a Republican Legislature is the most powerful political animal out there,'' said Brian Ballard, a Republican fundraiser, lobbyist and Scott ally. But, he warned, Scott's lock on power is not likely to last much longer than the first year of the governor's second term.

"There's a glow that is still going to be emanating from the governor and the new speaker and the new president, and they obviously are going to have disagreement but they start with a clean slate,'' Ballard said. "Over time, the wear and tear of the machinery takes its toll."

Scott arrived in 2011 as a newcomer and, in his first year, the Legislature pushed and Scott signed controversial laws that changed the way Florida teachers are evaluated and paid, required state workers to deduct 3 percent of their paychecks for retirement, imposed drug tests on welfare recipients, reduced early voting, rejected Medicaid expansion, and privatized prison medical care.

Conservative-backed measures to cripple unions and punish businesses who hired undocumented immigrants were also passed in the House, but were stopped by a handful of moderate Republicans in the Senate. After President Barack Obama won a second narrow victory in 2012, Scott's agenda shifted to the middle as he backed measures to give in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants and restored massive funding cuts to education.

With Obama leaving office in January 2017, the 2016 presidential race will be wide open, and Florida will garner the nation's attention with Scott as governor. This could keep him from pushing his agenda too far right.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the incoming Senate Democratic leader from Tampa, said she fully expects Scott to take a more moderate approach this term.

"He said he's going to do things a little differently,'' she said. "We're going to see if he keeps his word, and he'll have to spend less time fighting President Obama and more time fighting for the people of Florida."

The GOP juggernaut is expected to lead to an agenda of reducing regulations, taxes and union power. Legislation is also expected to track the agendas of some of the GOP's largest donors.

The gambling industry gave $8.6 million. Florida Power & Light gave $7.5 million. U.S. Sugar gave $2.7 million. The telecom industry gave $1.5 million. The construction industry gave $1.8 million. The health care industry gave $2.3 million. Charter school and school choice proponents gave $900,000. And the business lobby, which collects money from all those entities, gave more than $10 million.

"We passed 99 bills in the last four years and Gov. Scott signed all 99,'' said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which gave nearly $7 million to Republicans. "Over the next four years we hope the Legislature will want to partner with us to do another 99."

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she thinks the governor has learned how to use his power better after four years and will be helped by the GOP strength.

"I think the governor is empowered, this being his last term and having people in place," she said.

Whether the Legislature will lean as far to the right as it did when Scott was first elected and the House held a five-seat supermajority is yet to be seen. Although Florida Republicans benefited from the national GOP wave this year, the tea party did not play a prominent role.

"It would be my hope that the executive office and the legislative branches would not make the mistake they did in 2010 and read their win as a mandate on an overtly right-wing philosophy,'' said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, a high school teacher. "What people want now is governance. They want to see our parties work together."

As lawmakers face many more competitive campaigns in 2016 because of redistricting, it remains unclear whether they will take a more centrist tack than in the past.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who will become the next Senate president on Nov. 18, predicted that in at least one area — school testing — lawmakers are prepared to scale back the number of tests after a decade of defending them.

"We heard a lot of concern on the campaign trail about school tests, and we are going to have a discussion about that,'' he told the Times/Herald.

He said the 2016 presidential election already overshadows everything.

"We will encourage all senators, whether they are running in 2016 or 2018, to start campaigning next week,'' Gardiner said. "It's important you don't lose touch."

Times/Herald staff writer Rochelle Koff contributed to this report.