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Florida's Democrats grab a role

Published November 12, 2006


The mood sounded upbeat as Marco Rubio and Dan Gelber drove to the Tallahassee airport together last week for a flight home to Miami. Rubio, the incoming Republican House speaker, laughed at Gelber’s one-liners. Gelber, the incoming Democratic leader, joked that the pair had been in the Capitol rewriting the House rules to make it even more difficult for Republicans to do as they please.

If they can keep that same comfortable relationship going, Floridians will be better off. Voters sent a clear message in this election that they want change in Tallahassee. It wasn’t as dramatic as the ultimatum sent to Washington, where Democrats will take control of Congress. But Florida voters, at least those who bothered to go to the polls, reaffirmed that they are firmly in the middle and more than willing to cross party lines.

Charlie Crist kept the Governor’s Mansion in Republican hands with a populist message that transcended partisanship. The only governor who won with a smaller percentage of the vote than Crist’s 52.2 percent in the last 90 years was Lawton Chiles in 1994. But while Jim Davis called for change the loudest, he could not beat Crist on their common home turf in the Tampa Bay area or along the I-4 corridor. Davis tried to win the old-fashioned way for Democrats: Pile up a huge vote advantage in South Florida and hope it holds up. It didn’t, even though Davis won Broward County by more than 110,000 votes.

Alex Sink demonstrated how Democrats have to win statewide races. In the race for chief financial officer, she won more votes than Davis did and came within 40,000 votes of matching Crist’s total. She won more in North and Central Florida by getting voters to cross party lines and sounding more mainstream than Republican Tom Lee, whose voice for ethics and campaign reform will be missed in Tallahassee.

But most intriguing is what happened in the Florida House. Democrats lost control of the chamber a decade ago and have been losing seats ever since. But on Tuesday they gained seven seats, ousting two Republican incumbents and winning five open seats — including two in Pinellas. Party officials say that’s the sixth-largest gain for Democrats in state Houses across the country. Minnesota is the only state where voters also elected a Republican governor and turned a larger number of state House seats over to Democrats.

With a little luck and a little more money, Florida Democrats could have boosted their gain to 10 House seats. They won more than 49 percent of the vote in districts along the North Suncoast, Palm Beach County and Sarasota County.

“This is heartening, and it’s an opportunity more than anything else,’’ Gelber said. “I think we’ve got a lot of room to do even better.’’

The gains in Florida reflected a national trend. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports Democrats gained more than 320 legislative seats across the country. Here, Democrats also benefited from a change in approach to tap into voters’ discontent.

They recruited better candidates, such as former University of South Florida St. Petersburg dean Bill Heller and Miami Beach City Commissioner Luis Garcia (imagine that — a Democrat will represent a district that includes Little Havana). Those candidates more closely mirrored the politics of their districts instead of some party litmus test.

Democrats also more carefully targeted their money, sending some $250,000 late for voter turnout efforts to the seven districts they picked up. That meant some quality Democratic candidates, such as Carl Zimmermann in North Pinellas, didn’t get any help from Tallahassee that could have turned a narrow defeat into victory. But Democrats have lost before by giving too many candidates just enough money to lose with dignity.

All of this has to be kept in perspective. Republicans still control the Governor’s Mansion and two of three Cabinet seats. They kept their 26-14 margin in the Senate, and they still control the state House by 78-42. But now Republicans in the House don’t have enough votes to waive the rules and do whatever they want without consulting Democrats, and Sink will have a significant presence on the Cabinet.

Democrats have stopped the bleeding and learned some lessons. Republicans such as Crist and Rubio promise to work in an inclusive fashion (a few Democrats in the Crist administration and as vice chairmen of House committees would go a long way to reinforce that message).

Now if everybody can get together to solve the insurance crisis …

[Last modified November 12, 2006, 10:18:13]

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