By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
A virtual tie between St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and challenger Rick Baker in a mayoral primary Tuesday has left Florida Democrats giddy and Republicans groping for ways to rebrand their candidate.
Baker, a Republican former mayor who remained wildly popular years after leaving office, led Kriseman in polls and fundraising throughout the campaign.
But Kriseman, who served in the Florida House prior to his 2013 election as mayor, wound up beating Baker by 69 votes, with both candidates garnering about 48 percent of the ballots in the nonpartisan race.
The dead heat, with neither candidate capturing more than 50 percent of the votes, forced a Nov. 7 runoff between the two politicians.
St. Petersburg is a swing area in which Democrat Hillary Clinton trounced President Donald Trump by a margin of 60 percent to 36 percent in November.
Baker’s campaign tried to link Kriseman to a variety of divisive local issues, including a kerfuffle over the replacement of an iconic waterfront pier, a massive sewage link and a pricey new police station.
While those issues may have resonated for many voters, Democratic and Republican political consultants maintained that what likely hurt Baker the most was the Kriseman team’s success in tying Baker to Trump.
Strategists cautioned against overstating the broader significance of Kriseman’s Tuesday comeback.
“But it should be a warning sign. It should be an alert signal. It should cause Republicans to ask themselves, how could a guy who was so beloved in this community (Baker) not be able to turn that on again,” Republican strategist Rick Wilson told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.
Kriseman’s success could be a model for progressives and Democrats going into next year’s elections, Progress Florida Executive Director Mark Ferullo said.
“It’s going to validate that strategy going into 2018, to make Trump an anvil to hang around the neck of our opponents,” Ferullo, whose organization endorsed Kriseman, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
In contrast to many GOP politicians, Baker made inroads with black voters, especially those in St. Petersburg’s Midtown district, during his tenure as mayor from 2001 to 2010.
But the recent controversy about Trump’s remarks in response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — and Baker’s refusal to say whether he had voted for Trump — almost definitely hurt the Republican candidate.
“Rick Baker’s secret sauce was always that he could bring out African-Americans to vote for a Republican,” said Wilson, a harsh critic of Trump who was one of the founders of the “Never Trump” movement.
Baker’s performance in the mayoral election — especially in a city that has been rocked by racial strife in the past — may be a reflection of a growing racial divide nationally, Wilson said.
“There’s an association now among African-Americans that Donald Trump is leading a party of folks who are comfortable with racism. That doesn’t mean Rick Baker is racist. What it means is the association with the Republican Party’s brand and Donald Trump is having blowback effects down the ballot,” he said.
Baker’s support from the black community may have been overshadowed by an endorsement former President Barack Obama gave to Kriseman on Friday.
Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who led Obama’s 2008 campaign in Florida, credited Obama’s endorsement for helping Kriseman.
“This was definitely a #ThanksObama moment,” Schale said in a telephone interview.
Almost 70 percent of the votes in the mayoral primary were cast before election day, and nearly all of them before the Obama endorsement, Schale pointed out. And, when those votes were tallied, Baker was ahead in the absentee ballot count by more than 1,000 votes.
Just a fraction of the voters on election day, therefore, “cast a ballot with the knowledge of the Obama endorsement,” Schale said.
“There’s no question in my mind that the reason it got as close as it did was at some level the Trump brand and at the same level because of the popularity of Barack Obama,” Schale said.
In advance of the 2018 elections, Democrats are eyeing not only the St. Pete race but a key special election next month in Miami-Dade to replace former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican who was forced to resign in April after a profanity- and racially-tinged tirade at a private club near the Capitol.
“If they can win here and they win the Frank Artiles seat, the Florida Democrats are going to be a totally new party,” said Barry Edwards, a Democratic strategist and radio-show host who is active in St. Petersburg politics.
“The Democrats need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and if they see this light, then they’re going to be energized. Their donors are going to be energized. The activists are going to be energized. And it’s going to create the perception that they’re on a roll, and we know in politics, perception is reality,” he said.