Ex-Republican Crist is Florida Democrats' Big Hope
Republicans have had control of the Florida Legislature and governor's office since 1999 and have used their power to restrict abortions, loosen gun laws, strip state workers of benefits, allow private school vouchers and enact a slew of other policy changes that Democrats opposed but could do nothing to stop.
Now Democrats, desperate for relevancy again, are trying to stop the Republican agenda by defeating Gov. Rick Scott while essentially ignoring the rest of the ballot.
And they're doing it with a candidate they worked to defeat in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2006 and 2010 - Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, a 58-year-old politician who has been a Democrat for 20 months. Crist won the governor's race in 2006 as a Republican before leaving office after one term to run for the U.S. Senate, first with the GOP and then as an independent.
"Because Democrats have been out of power for so long, they're grasping for any kind of formula to win," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor. "It's incredibly risky. If they lose, should Rick Scott win again with Charlie Crist as the nominee, where does the Democratic Party go?"
Democrats dominated Florida politics for decades until Republicans took over the state Senate in 1994 and the House in 1996. Jeb Bush won the 1998 governor's race and Republicans have since then been virtually unimpeded in passing a conservative agenda. Democrats still have a 39 to 36 percent lead in registered voters and President Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012, but U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's victories in 2000, 2006 and 2012 have been about the party's only highlights in state races.
Since Bush was elected, Democrats have lost 11 of 12 Cabinet races and lost the U.S. Senate seat Democrat Bob Graham gave up when he retired in 2005. Republicans outnumber Democrats 17-10 in Florida's congressional delegation, 75-45 in the state House and 26-14 in the Senate.
Nelson's success has been in part because he's a moderate. Also, since he's been elected, his challengers - former U.S. Reps. Katherine Harris and Connie Mack IV - failed to generate enthusiasm for their campaigns. And Democrats tend to turn out in higher numbers in presidential election years, a fact that benefited Obama.
This year Democrats, showing their lack of up-and-coming candidates, didn't even bother finding viable challengers for two Republican Cabinet officers - Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. And while Democrats do have an opponent for Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, the race has drawn little interest and George Sheldon has struggled to build name recognition and raise money.
And since Democrats won't recapture either branch of the Legislature any time soon, that leaves one place where they can be relevant: the governor's office, which they haven't won since Lawton Chiles was re-elected in 1994.
"For us as a party, for this time in Florida's history, it's all about the governor's race," said Screven Watson, a Democratic strategist who previously served as the state party executive director. "So why not put all your eggs in that basket?"
Despite some initial skepticism, Watson said he's comfortable with Crist, who served as a Republican state senator, education commissioner, attorney general and governor.
"I don't think that anybody can straight-faced say he wasn't a moderate governor," Watson said. "This is a guy the Democrats have accepted. Not only accepted but embraced and plan to rally around. People in this state and in this country are tired of the extremes."
Still, the plan is risky, and if it doesn't work, Democrats might as well give up and start over, said Republican strategist Rick Wilson.
"After Charlie, what? After Charlie, who's their great hope? If they don't win with Charlie Crist, it has to be stunt casting because their bench is so weak," Wilson said.