© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2003
TAMPA -- When Margie Kincaid registered to vote 60 years ago, Hillsborough elections officials handed her a card with a D already on it.
She took it home to her Republican parents, not realizing she had been registered as a Democrat. Her mother sent her back to the courthouse to see the Hillsborough supervisor of elections, Democrat Jim Dekle.
"I went down there to Mr. Dekle and told him I need to change this to R, for Republican," Kincaid recalled last week. "He said, 'That's too bad because you won't have anyone to vote for."'
She laughs about it now.
Last fall, Kincaid, the longtime head of the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee, saw all but one Democrat lose in countywide elections.
Ironically, she and other observers say, such success likely worked against Tampa's bid for the Republican National Convention.
Although Florida is one of the nation's largest swing states and the Tampa Bay area is a key battleground, experts say President Bush can feel good about his prospects here and Florida offered no real political incentive for hosting the convention.
New York, by contrast, is a Democratic stronghold that offers Republicans plenty of room for improvement, along with experience hosting major events and the symbolism engendered by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Republican Party's dominance in Florida was highlighted last month by gains in the state's congressional delegation, the Legislature and the Cabinet, as well as by Gov. Jeb Bush's overwhelming victory over Democrat Bill McBride.
"I think they get Florida without really working for it, while getting a shot at New York state," said Merle Black, an authority on Southern voting patterns and co-author of a new book, The Rise of Southern Republicans.
"The politics of the argument is for New York City, rather than Florida."
In its proposal to the Republican National Committee, Tampa's convention team suggested Tampa Bay is politically important because election results here have mirrored results in Florida and the nation.
Hillsborough County itself is emblematic of the sweeping political change that has enveloped Florida and the South in the last two decades. While registered Democrats still outnumber registered Republicans in Hillsborough and in Florida, many regularly cross party lines:
-- Gov. Bush beat McBride by 13 percentage points in Hillsborough, even though McBride has been a Tampa civic and business leader for nearly two decades.
-- Republicans picked up two new congressional seats and ousted an incumbent Democrat, Karen Thurman of Dunnellon. The GOP now holds 18 of the state's 25 seats in Congress; in 1980 Republicans held just four of the 15 seats.
-- The GOP captured the state Senate in 1994 and now holds 26 of the 40 seats, a gain of one since last year. The party won control of the state House in 1996 and now holds 81 of the 120 seats, a gain of four this year. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd is from Hillsborough County.
Democrats lost their lone seat in the state Cabinet. The party is in disarray and has selected a new state chairman, outgoing Tallahassee Mayor Scott Maddox.
"Re-electing Jeb Bush and the entire Cabinet, and the state House and the state Senate, I think it kind of sends a message out that conservatives and Republicans are here to stay," Kincaid said.
The last time Hillsborough County voted for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate was in 1990, when Lawton Chiles defeated Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, who had been mayor of Tampa. In 1994, Hillsborough voters backed Jeb Bush, then a first-time candidate, over Chiles.
By 1998, when Bush faced Democrat Buddy MacKay, Bush won Hillsborough by 26,000 votes. Last year, despite McBride's local roots, Bush won the county by 40,000 votes.
The Republicanization of the South began in the 1960s, as a reaction to the Democrat-led Civil Rights movement. It accelerated in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, who took Florida over President Jimmy Carter, 55 percent to 38 percent.
Across the South, rural white voters who historically voted Democrat, and still are registered as Democrats, have been drawn to Republican themes of less government and lower taxes, said Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, many Southern Democrats also have felt a growing alienation from national Democrats.
The only Democrats winning in the the South these days are those who manage to appear independent of the national party, as Florida's U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson have done, Black said.
One of Tampa's longtime Democratic standard-bearers, Pat Frank, has seen Florida's Republican metamorphosis up close, first as a member of the state House in the late 1970s, then as a state senator from 1978 to 1988.
In November, she narrowly won re-election as the at-large representative on the Hillsborough County Commission, the only Democrat who ran countywide and won.
Frank said she can pinpoint when, as she puts it, Florida's Democratic Party "started downhill:" Some two decades ago, when conservative Senate Democrats started brokering deals with Republicans.
"We've always had in this state a conservative north, a moderate middle, and a liberal south," she said.
"And the Democrats from the northern part of the state, and some from the central, were feeling as though their views were not winning, that it was the southern Democrats that were in control."
Conservative Democratic leaders also were switching parties. They included Bob Martinez, a former Tampa mayor who won the 1986 governor's race as a Republican, and Malcolm Beard, a former Hillsborough sheriff and state senator from Tampa.
"I remember watching it, feeling this big and slow wave wash over the county," said Warren Weathers, the chief deputy property appraiser in Hillsborough County, who switched to the GOP three years ago.
Democrats and Republicans alike credit the GOP's hard work, organization and fundraising advantages for its rise to success. When Kincaid's late husband, Bill, became chairman of Hillsborough's Republican Party in 1981, it didn't even have an office.
"The joke about it was that we used to be able to meet in a phone booth," Kincaid said. "It was bigger than that. But we only cranked up every four years, for presidential races."
Tampa's most influential Republicans, including Dick Beard and Al Austin, finance chairman of the state Republican Party and a major Bush fundraiser, lobbied hard for the convention. Kincaid said winning it would have helped validate years of struggle.
Picking New York "is the political way to look at it," she said. "But I think my gosh, we worked so hard to be so solid, why not give us the plum, the prize?"
In 2000, Bush prevailed in sprawling Southern suburbs of Georgia, Texas and Florida, while Democrat Al Gore won over those voters in northern states, Black said.
Even though President Bush and Al Gore essentially tied in Florida in 2000, the last round of elections give the president reason to feel confident about his prospects here in 2004, Black said. He predicted Bush's re-election campaign will focus more on Northern suburbs, in an attempt to wear away traditional Democratic support.
"If they can carry Northern rural areas and do well in the suburbs, then they've isolated Democrats in the large cities," Black said.
"What Bush is trying to do, I think, is carry these Southern states without doing a Southern campaign. He doesn't have a Southern strategy -- they don't talk that way. They think they can get it without one."