Political Hay

Is the Orange State Still Red?

Whither Florida as 2012 approaches, with a GOP governor enjoying 29 percent approval ratings?

By 6.9.11

TAMPA -- In presidential politics, Florida is very big medicine. Florida's 27 electoral votes in 2008, ten percent of what was required to be elected president, went to the community organizer from Chicago by a couple of points, making him only the third Democrat in the last 11 presidential cycles to carry Florida.

Democrats nowadays tend to win in Florida only after Republicans have badly lost voter confidence -- Jimmy-Bob in '76 after Watergate, Obama in '08 after the great economic infarct -- or after Republicans pick a superannuated war-horse with no direction whose only argument for the nomination is that it's his turn -- Billy Bob in '96 over Bob "Bob" Dole. This was part of the story in '08 as well when Republicans chose a great patriot and honored warrior but a political non-starter in Captain John McCain.

After the 2010 census Florida is even more buffed politically, bringing 29 electoral votes to the table in 2012. And whoever the Republicans send out against the lefty now in the White House, that candidate will be nominated and showcased in a Republican convention in Tampa. So, was Florida's '08 romance with a radical rock star an anomaly, or is red state Florida turning a bit purple around the edges? With 17 months left before the election -- dozens of political lifetimes -- it's too early to say. But the smart money leans toward anomaly.

"Florida is center-right," RNC co-chair Sharon Day of Ft. Lauderdale told me this week. "We're still a red state. If the Republican Party has its ground-game together we can see that Obama is a one-term president. And that's our most important role. The stakes are as high as they can be. We're talking about saving the country."

Of course, electing Republicans is not always a reliable proxy for advancing conservatism. But of late in Florida it has been. In state cabinet elections in 2010, Florida Republicans went three for three, and each of the victors ran on an unambiguously conservative platform. As did popular rookie U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who not only ran well to the right of his primary opponent, liberal former Republican Florida Governor Charlie Crist, but ran Crist out of the Republican Party and into the private sector. (Crist is now a TV drummer for a large personal injury law firm -- he may be reached at 1-800-AMBULANCE.) Florida now has a conservative former corporate CEO for a governor.

Day, who in addition to her high RNC post is Florida's Republican State Committeewoman and Broward County's Republican State Committeewoman, calls herself a "red-meat conservative." There's ample support for her optimism about the conservative cause in the Sunshine State.

For several years Floridians have self-identified themselves to pollsters as conservative over liberal by two to one. The 2010 off-year elections were a turkey-shoot for conservative candidates. In office, Rubio has worked the very conservative initiatives he ran on and earned a plus-12 favorable over unfavorable rating in the latest poll. Obama's policies and programs -- Obama Care, cap and trade, incontinent spending -- do not poll well here.

These are things one might expect in a state where both houses of the state legislature are 2-1 Republican, the cabinet is all Republican, and the state's U.S. congressional delegation is top-heavy with R's. They probably account for the fact that the three candidates for the 2012 Republican U.S. Senate nomination -- Florida Senate president Mike Haridopolos, former U.S. Senator George LeMieux, and former Florida House majority leader Adam Hasner -- seem to be vying for the title of the true conservative in the pack. The winner will run against two-term Democrat Bill Nelson, an off-the-rack liberal.

But wait. There may not be a totally unobstructed path for conservatives in Florida. There are some counter currents. Likely just enough to consider Florida the largest swing state still in play. New York, also with 29 electoral votes, and California with its hog-choking 55 (is it really a good idea to give a state that has made such a dog's breakfast of its own affairs such a big say in selecting a president?) are safely in the Democratic camp. Texas, with 38 electoral votes, is almost certainly the other thing. On to the currents: 

First there's the business of about 600K more registered Democrats in Florida than Republicans. This is a holdover from when Florida was a one-party, Southern state. And the one party was the Democrats. Many older registered Florida Democrats haven't voted for a Democrat for president since Carter (and most who did this soon regretted it).

North Florida, paradoxically the most Southern part of the state, is solidly conservative, even though a Democrat scored an upset win in the recent Jacksonville mayor's race. Central Florida is competitive, but almost certainly has a conservative majority in most times. But liberalism is alive and well in South Florida, especially in the populous Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. This part of the state is sometimes known as Baja-New Jersey.

About 20 percent of Florida's voters are independents, and Florida can swing on the whims of these voters. In 2008 independents were enchanted with Obama. By 2010 they had moved strongly to the right. Too soon to tell where they will show up on the spectrum in 2012. It's also too soon to tell if young people, excited enough by having one of their own running for president in 2008 to vote in larger than usual numbers, will return to their normal state of political inertness in 2012.

Another political ambiguity is the unpopularity of Florida's conservative Republican governor Rick Scott. Scott won the governor's office narrowly in 2010 on a platform of reducing state spending and has, with a cooperative state legislature, dealt with a $4 billion state deficit. He's cut down on the number of state employees and obliged state employees to pay a small portion of their retirement costs. He also told the Obama administration to keep its $2.4 billion for high-speed rail as that project is simply a huge hole down which to pour taxpayer money.

For these accomplishments and moves, which parallel closely what Scott said he would do when he ran, a Quinnipiac poll last month pegged his approval rating at 29 percent, one of the lowest of any governor in the nation. Many of those whining are just the usual suspects -- state bureaucrats, Democratic officials, enviros, teachers unions, et al. -- but the widespread nature of the opposition to Scott's austere policies brings into question exactly how conservative some people who label themselves conservative really are.

So there you have it. A mixed business. But more reason for conservative optimism than gloom. For the liberal cause in Florida in 2012, Sharon Day and her ideological soulmates hope and expect the final line score will be: no hits, no runs, no anomalies.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.