Remember how in August 2009 Charlie Crist was so certain of being elected to the U.S. Senate that he named a friend and former chief of staff to keep the seat warm for him?
For that and many other reasons, Democrats should not buy the idea that the former governor and former Republican could win easily against Gov. Rick Scott. Democrats are strutting after the 2012 election. President Barack Obama won the state for the second time. The party gained seats in Congress and the Legislature. Last weekend’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner set records for attendance and fund-raising. Realistic Democrats, though, surely understand that the 2014 election will be different.
For one thing — maybe the biggest thing — far fewer people will vote. Elections for governor are held in non-presidential election years. Turnout drops way off when there’s no national ticket on the ballot. Since 1998, turnout in gubernatorial years has broken 50 percent only once, in 2002. That year, supporters of the class-size amendment ran their own campaign, which brought out voters who otherwise would have stayed home.
In presidential years, by contrast, turnout hasn’t dropped below 70 percent. Last November, it was 71.5 percent. Based on the 12 million voters on the state rolls for that election, about 2.5 million fewer voters will determine the 2014 election for governor if turnout even reaches 50 percent. In 2010, it was 48.7 percent.
Lower turnout favors Republicans. It raises the importance of older, white voters, more of whom are Republicans. Nationally, blacks — most of whom are Democrats — turned out in 2012 at a higher rate than whites. Barack Obama, though, was on the ballot. Democrats aren’t expecting to have as their nominee a candidate who could be Florida’s first black governor.
For another thing, the Florida Democratic Party didn’t win the state for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. The Obama campaign did. In the off-years, when state party organizations matter more, Democrats have won three races and lost 15 since 1998. Two of those wins came in 1998: the well-known Bob Butterworth (attorney general) and Bill Nelson (insurance commissioner.)
Today, as a U.S. senator, Mr. Nelson is the only Democrat to hold one of six statewide offices — governor, attorney general, chief financial officer, agriculture commissioner and the two Senate seats. He is 70 years old, and the Democratic bench is so thin that some in the party are begging Sen. Nelson to challenge Gov. Scott. State Democratic chairwoman Allison Tant told the Florida News Service that some “heavy hitters” may enter statewide races next year. We’ll see.
At the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman/South Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz practically begged Sen. Nelson to run. If he declines, as he says he will, she just made the party’s nominee look like a second choice. And if Charlie Crist is the nominee, he will have enough of a credibility problem. He made a big show of becoming a Democrat, but he left the Republican Party in 2010 only because he was about to lose the Senate primary to Marco Rubio. The tea party had caused the GOP ground to shift, at least for that year.
Mr. Crist has been on the arm of hyper-partisan Democrat and former Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, and so might believe that the party switch won’t hurt him. Mr. Aaronson, however, knows little of Florida politics outside the southwest-county condo communities he represented. Mr. Crist has a record until 2010 that he must explain away to some voters and a record since 2010 that he must explain away to other voters.
To Democrats, Mr. Crist would have to explain his many comments that Jeb Bush was Florida’s greatest governor. He would have to explain his years of proclaiming himself to be a conservative in the mold of Connie Mack, Florida’s former two-term U.S. senator. To independents, he would have to explain his preposterous statement at The Palm Beach Post in 2010 that he would be running as an independent even if he were 20 points ahead in the GOP primary.
Last week’s Quinnipiac poll still showed Mr. Crist with a 10-point advantage over Gov. Scott, but that’s an improvement, and we’re still 17 months from the election. In that time, Gov. Scott will say “Florida families” roughly six million more times and issue several thousand more fawning releases like last week’s from the Paris Air Show. It quoted 10 people, each of them praising the governor.
Some Republicans roll their eyes when Gov. Scott says, “It’s working.” But even if Republicans are ambivalent about the governor, they will back him. The governor will have Corporate Florida behind him. And whatever the mixed feelings among Republicans for Rick Scott, they have no mixed feelings about Charlie Crist: They hate him. In off-year elections, angry voters show up. If Democrats are certain about Charlie Crist now, they should remember how certain Charlie Crist was in 2009.