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Politics

Republican Turnout, Wave Overwhelmed Charlie Crist

November 5, 2014 - 6:00pm

Democrats' plans to take down Republican Gov. Rick Scott -- a hated figure on the left -- were relatively straightforward: Run charismatic former Gov. Charlie Crist, and fire up the turnout machine that helped President Barack Obama carry the state twice.

On Tuesday, those plans fell apart, as a robust ground game from Republicans, Scott's massive financial edge and the GOP wave that swept the nation propelled Scott to a second term by a narrow margin. Unofficial results showed Scott carrying about 48.2 percent of the vote, with Crist picking up almost 47.1 percent.

By the day after the election, Crist's allies were saying what many Democrats across the country were saying: Given Obama's unpopularity and voters' sour mood, the former Republican Crist never stood much of a chance.

Steve Geller, a former Senate minority leader and close ally of Crist, whose friendship dates back to their college days at Florida State University, said Crist was a victim of the national Republican wave.

"Gov. Scott is fortunate," Geller said. "He has good timing. There have been two Republican wave elections in the past 15 years and he ran during both of them and won narrow victories both times."

The national trends certainly helped Scott, said Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant, but only after the GOP and its allies laid the groundwork for a victory.

"If the campaign hadn't built the ship and raised the sail, that last little bit of wind wouldn't have moved us," said Wilson, who worked with an independent group supporting Scott.

Neither Scott nor Crist held any public events Wednesday, the day after the most expensive and perhaps the most personal governor's race in Florida history. Crist did make calls to thank supporters and his staff, according to an aide. Scott was expected to hold a transition press conference in the coming days.

But the analysis of the 2014 election was already under way in some corners, with both parties trying to figure out what worked and what didn't Tuesday night -- and whether there are any lessons to be learned.

One of the most surprising parts of the election, given the Democrats' repeated emphasis on turning out voters over the last six years, might have been how poorly they did. Six of the 10 counties with the lowest turnout Tuesday went for Crist, including counties like Miami-Dade (40.7 percent), Broward (44.45 percent) and Palm Beach (49.1 percent) -- the three counties where Crist scored his largest margins in terms of votes.

Crist did win the six counties with the most votes -- including those three -- by a combined 447,190 votes. But Scott racked up huge margins in small- and medium-sized counties across the state, offsetting Crist's advantages in urban core districts with wins almost everywhere else. Scott carried 54 counties by an average of 26 percent; Crist carried 13 by an average of 16.9 percent.

"That's how Republicans have often won statewide elections since the 1990s," said Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida.

While Crist carried the largest cities in the state, Scott often carried the suburbs around them. Scott did well in nonurban counties in the I-4 corridor and crushed Crist in Duval County, a critical trove of votes for the GOP. Scott won 56.7 percent of the two-party vote in that county -- home to Jacksonville -- more than the Republican candidates' edge in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections and Scott's own advantage in 2010.

That, too, might have had something to do with Obama, Wilson said.

"Crist's flavor of pro-Obama cheerleading is enormously unpopular in this state except for ... the urban counties. He can't sell that outside of his base," Wilson said.

Libertarian Adrian Wyllie -- who carried almost 3.8 percent of vote -- also could have played a spoiler role. While Wyllie was expected to pull voters away from Scott, and did perform well in counties won by the incumbent, MacManus said exit polls showed much of his support coming from younger voters who were expected to side with Crist.

"He ended up hurting Crist more than Scott," she said.

Wilson also said Democrats seemed not to realize that Republicans have caught up to them on voting technology, so that the advantage Democrats perceive themselves to have is not as large as they believe.

"We realized that the technology is politically ambiguous," he said. "It doesn't matter who's using it."

And, of course, Scott, an allied committee and the Republican Party of Florida poured tens of millions of dollars into bashing Crist -- particularly early, as the Democrat was still working to raise money -- defining Crist and possibly dampening enthusiasm for the governor among Democrats. The gulf between the two only widened when Scott poured $12.8 million of his and his wife's fortune into the Republican Party of Florida in October.

Combined with everything else, it was just too much.

"It's always difficult to run when you're outspent 2-to-1," Geller said. "I think in a normal election (Crist) would have overcome that. There was a national Republican wave that carried a lot of people with it."

News Service senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.

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