Florida has turned from purple to red. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans will hold every statewide office assuming Gov. Rick Scott’s narrow lead over incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson holds up in an expected recount. Wins by Scott and former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis in the governor’s race complete the Republicans’ complete domination of what was once a swing state. And the biggest winner is President Donald Trump, who carried the state two years ago and campaigned hard for Scott and DeSantis.
Scott and DeSantis won Tuesday by portraying their opponents as too out of touch, too liberal and too flawed to effectively govern. They took slightly different approaches toward Trump, with Scott distancing himself during portions of the campaign and DeSantis warmly embracing the president and his scare tactics. But together they energized just enough Republicans and independent voters to create a long red wall that blocked a modest blue wave of urban Democrats.
Following the successful playbook he used in his two campaigns for governor, Scott invested about $60 million of his personal fortune and stayed on message. He pushed term limits and portrayed Nelson as an ineffective Washington insider who stayed too long. The governor took full credit for the state’s economic recovery, received praise of his leadership during hurricanes and became an election-year environmentalist. He also apparently muted concerns about health care by declaring he would support continuing to require insurers to cover patients with pre-existing conditions.
DeSantis rode his endorsement from Trump to the Governor’s Mansion, narrowly defeating Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. He issued few policy proposals, but he effectively portrayed Gillum as a liberal threat to Florida’s economic recovery and constantly reminded voters of the FBI investigation involving Tallahassee city government. Gillum could never escape that cloud.
The impact of the Republicans continuing to hold the Governor’s Mansion will be far-reaching. DeSantis will support the Legislature’s embrace of tax cuts, deregulation, school choice and free-market approach to health care (forget about Medicaid expansion). He can be expected to appoint three conservatives to the Florida Supreme Court, who will reshape the court for decades. DeSantis will be in charge as Trump runs for re-election in 2020, and he will be in charge when the Legislature redraws legislative and congressional districts in 2022.
Democrats had some smaller victories Tuesday. They picked up two South Florida congressional seats, a state Senate seat in Tampa and five state House seats -- including three in Tampa Bay. But Tuesday reconfirmed they have failed to make inroads in suburban and rural areas, and narrow losses in statewide races are no consolation.
For Republicans, their control of Florida now is virtually complete. They will hold both U.S. Senate seats for the first time in modern history. They will keep the Governor’s Mansion they have held for 20 years. They will continue to hold the three statewide Cabinet offices. They still firmly control the Legislature, and they still have one more U.S. House member than the Democrats.
For Democrats, Tuesday’s election is the final indignity. Nelson apparently was ousted. Gillum’s inspiring bid to become the state’s first African American governor failed. Democrats previously have embraced centrist candidates for governor and lost. Now they have tried a liberal candidate for governor and lost. Except for a few big city mayors, they have nowhere to turn and nowhere to go but up. Who will emerge as the progressive voice to answer the conservative chorus of DeSantis, Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio?
Florida’s government has turned entirely red even as the electorate remains narrowly divided. It’s up to Scott and DeSantis to be consensus-builders rather than partisans and uniters rather than dividers.