(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)
By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
The 2016 elections had already produced their share of surprises. The triumph of a reality-television star in the race for his party’s presidential nomination. The premature end of a certain Republican front-runner’s campaign that had raised well more than $100 million for the primary push. And the success of a septuagenarian Vermont socialist who nearly claimed the Democratic nomination for the White House.
That was before the Russian-backed leaks of campaign emails, the numerous allegations of sexual assault against one of the candidates and the most-watched debate in presidential history.
But Election 2016 presented one more shock to the system when the results came in: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee and leader in the polls, had lost the presidential race to Republican Donald Trump, a real-estate mogul turned celebrity.
Aside from Trump’s victory, though, there were few unexpected developments in Florida on Tuesday night. Months after failing to defeat Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio easily won re-election against Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy. Democrats made modest progress in the state’s U.S. House delegation and the Legislature, but picked up fewer seats than they had dreamed of when voters passed a ban on political gerrymandering six years earlier.
So, as the nation braced for the unpredictable changes that would sweep the federal government under Trump, Florida voters prepared for continued Republican dominance in Tallahassee. For one election, Florida was no weirder than the rest of the country.
HOME SWEET HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Trump and Clinton probably could have claimed homestead exemptions in Florida for 2016, given the amount of time they spent campaigning across the state.
Much of the time, Trump either represented himself or sent his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, in his stead. Clinton, meanwhile, complemented her own visits to Florida with appearances by surrogates like President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, her running mate. Oh, and that other “Clinton” with a first name of Bill.
Trump, Kaine, Biden and Bill Clinton would all make stops in Tallahassee — something unusual for a town that is normally sleepy during the state’s presidential campaign. Trump made forays into other parts of Northwest Florida as well, a step that seemed like a foolish waste of time, given that he was certain to handily win that region of the state.
Meanwhile, nearly everyone not connected to the Trump campaign believed that the increasing diversity of Florida, and especially the Puerto Rican influx that has reshaped the I-4 corridor, would make it difficult if not impossible for the developer to win his “second home.” And Trump, the thinking went, needed Florida far more than Hillary Clinton did.
Both of those notions turned out to be false on Tuesday. It’s not clear yet whether Trump will end up with enough electoral votes to avoid needing Florida at all — ballots are still being counted in some states — but Florida was one of Clinton’s best fallbacks if her Midwestern “blue wall” crumbled Tuesday. Instead, she lost Florida and several Midwestern states she expected to win.
In a twist, though, Clinton’s fate in Florida was sealed in part by the same white working-class voters that sunk her prospects in the Rust Belt. In heavily blue-collar Pasco County, Trump more than tripled the margin of victory of the last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. He also drove up his margins in rural counties.
“White working-class areas, just like we saw in the rest of the nation, just rebelled against her,” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic analyst based in Tallahassee.
It brought to mind the victory of another Republican businessman written off by the establishment in a statewide race: Gov. Rick Scott, who led a Super PAC that supported Trump and can now enjoy the rewards that come with signing on to Make America Great Again.
“I was the outsider,” Scott wrote online after Trump’s victory. “The Republican Party didn’t support me, and they spent a lot of money against me, and I won anyways because Floridians wanted a change. The same was true for Americans this year.”
LITTLE MARCO COMES UP BIG
Had it not been for Trumpmania, Rubio might have been the one sweeping to victory in the Florida presidential race. Instead, having been vanquished by Trump after a resounding loss in the Florida primary, the man Trump referred to as “Little Marco” decided to run for re-election to the U.S. Senate.
It was a risky move. Rubio was going back on a promise that he would not return to the Senate after his presidential bid. And he was shoving a handful of Republican candidates, including close personal friend Carlos Lopez-Cantera, out of the race. But the thumping Rubio administered to Murphy made it look like the right call.
Unofficial returns showed Rubio beating Murphy by eight points, 52-44, despite the incumbent’s tortured relationship with Trump. And the outcome of the presidential race, ironically, makes it probable that Rubio will follow through and serve a full six-year term instead of running for the White House in 2020 — a prospect that Murphy had used of one of his main lines of attack. (Of course, if Rubio runs again in 2022, Democrats will also certainly paint it as a launching pad to a 2024 bid.)
In remarks that seemed jarring as the nation squabbled over Trump’s triumph, Rubio told supporters Tuesday night that it is time for America to come together to respect its diversity behind a common dream.
“I believe with all my heart that if we do what needs to be done in the years to come that my children and yours will be the freest and most prosperous that have ever lived,” Rubio said. “But we must start now. For while we still have time to get this right, we don’t have forever.”
Having called Trump a con man and questioned the size of the future president’s endowment during the primary campaign, Rubio will now have to work with the incoming POTUS in the Senate. And if he does still harbor national ambitions, Rubio will likely not want to cross Trump and his band of passionate supporters any more than necessary.
The loss knocks a good deal of the shine off Murphy, at one point seen as a rising star in a Democratic Party that needs them. Then again, former Gov. Charlie Crist claimed victory Tuesday in the race for a Pinellas County congressional seat, just six years after losing a Senate election to Rubio.
FAIRER DISTRICTS, SAME RESULT
For years, Florida Democrats had argued that if they could just stop Republican gerrymandering of congressional and legislative seats, they could make up some serious ground. Demographic patterns would make it hard for them to start dreaming of majorities, but a split state Senate and a more balanced U.S. House delegation seemed within reach.
Voters approved “Fair Districts” amendments to the state Constitution in 2010, and a court battle that followed the 2012 redistricting process led to new maps for the U.S. House and the state Senate. Running in a presidential year with the new maps and with Latino turnout juiced by Trump’s incendiary rhetoric about immigration, Democrats thought 2016 might be their year.
Instead, they ended up picking up one seat apiece in Congress and the state Senate.
In the U.S. House, Crist’s win was joined by political novice Stephanie Murphy’s defeat of longtime Republican Rep. John Mica. Former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings picked up another redrawn seat, which, because it of heavy Democratic tilt under the new maps, was essentially decided in the primary.
Democrats did what they needed to do to pick up seats; it’s just that they lost some as well. Republican Neal Dunn took Congressional District 2 in Northwest Florida, something long expected, while Army Veteran Brian Mast beat Democrat Randy Perkins in Murphy’s old Treasure Coast district. Incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo held on in a South Florida district that Democrats had also eyed.
It was the same story in the state Senate: an active campaign, but modest gains. In the Democrats’ highest-profile victory, state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez managed to knock off Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla in a Miami race. But next door, Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard fell to Republican Rep. Frank Artiles.
Democrats easily picked up an Orlando-area seat held the past eight years by Senate President Andy Gardiner, a Republican leaving office after Tuesday’s elections due to term limits.
But the overall culprit, according to incoming Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, was Trump.
“If I was able to net one, after Donald Trump won the state, then I think we were at least able to stop the tide,” said Braynon, D-Miami Gardens.
For his part, incoming Senate President Joe Negron sounded just as pleased, if not more so, to hold onto a 25-15 edge in the chamber.
“With everything that happened, with redistricting and all the other challenges for us, I was focused on five races and it looks like we won four of them, and in addition we’ll still have a delegation of three Republican senators from Miami,” said Negron, R-Stuart.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Donald Trump won Florida as Republicans had a good election night in the Sunshine State.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It turns out that the elites in Washington have no idea what is going on in this country. They are completely clueless. They are in complete shock right now. I love it.”—Gov. Rick Scott, on Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.