In Florida it's the I-4s who have it

The state is neither blue nor red ... nor white. Color it purple, and call it a battle where the center holds.

Published November 12, 2006

There are two ways to spin Gov.-elect Charlie Crist's seven-percentage-point win over Jim Davis last week:

- Crist and the Florida GOP are so strong that they managed to overcome a Democratic wave across the country and still win the state's biggest political prize by 340,000 votes.

- Republicans spent a record-shattering more than $50-million on Crist - roughly four times what the Democrats spent for Jim Davis - and couldn't keep a little-known Tampa congressman from the best Democratic gubernatorial showing in 12 years.

Both assessments are partly true. Slice and dice Florida's electoral map from Tuesday and you'll see lessons, and ominous signs, for Democrats and Republicans alike.

Lesson one is an oldie about Florida politics: Statewide races are won and lost along the I-4 corridor, the swath of moderate ticket-splitters between St. Petersburg and Daytona Beach. That's why more political advertising money was spent in Tampa Bay than anywhere in America, and probably why every successful statewide candidate this year - Sen. Bill Nelson, Crist, Republican attorney general candidate Bill McCollum, and Democratic chief financial officer candidate Alex Sink - resides in Tampa Bay or the Orlando area.

It also explains why Crist and his top advisers never bought the conventional Tallahassee political wisdom that state Sen. Rod Smith from the Gainesville area would have been a tougher Democratic nominee. Sharp, charismatic and better connected to big money donors, Smith simply did not have the Tampa Bay geographic base Davis had.

"You absolutely need an I-4 candidate in order to be successful," said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and top Davis adviser. "The Bob Butterworth from Broward or Bob Graham (from Miami-Dade) kind of candidate is pretty hard to pull off anymore. A Democrat has to have the South Florida people believe in you, but you have to be from I-4."

In a state where Democrats maintain a slight majority of registered voters, the basic recipe for victory requires Democrats to win big in their heavily populated Southeast Florida strongholds, hold their own along the I-4 corridor battleground, and avoid getting crushed in conservative North Florida. Vice versa for Republicans.

After a couple wobbly cycles for Democrats in South Florida, Davis actually racked up a huge margin - more than 200,000 votes in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Unlike Bill McBride in 2002 and Buddy MacKay in 1998, Davis won Miami-Dade, handily. Davis also won better percentages in North Florida than recent Democrats like McBride, Betty Castor and John Kerry.

Davis' campaign died on I-4.

Even though Crist's 6-percentage-point win in his home county of Pinellas was weaker than his statewide showing or Jeb Bush's showing in the last two governor's races, Crist swept the swing voter battleground. A Democrat who fails to win even Democratic-leaning counties like Orange and Volusia, as Davis did, loses Florida.

Proof of the Republican lock on America's biggest battleground state? Not really.

First of all, Democrat Alex Sink easily won Florida against a formidable Republican, stressing nonpartisan competence and experience and taking counties throughout North, Central and South Florida.

Second, Crist didn't win campaigning as a Republican. He campaigned as a centrist who often sounded more like a Democrat - raise teacher pay, import prescription drugs from Canada, fight big insurance and utility companies, champion civil rights.

Exit polls showed he and Davis evenly split women and independents, who helped Democrats win elsewhere in the country. Had Tom Gallagher, with his ethics problems and right-wing political makeover, won the Republican nomination with a similarly huge financial advantage, I suspect we'd be talking about Gov.-elect Davis and a Florida sea change today.

Crist's moderate persona and the widespread and perhaps exaggerated perception that Davis was doomed, helped limit Davis' ability to raise money even from ardent Democrats tired of funding losing Florida campaigns.

"They were just so happy to be done with Jeb Bush, they thought Charlie couldn't be as bad as that and they were lulled into a false sense of security," said Kirk Wager, a top Democratic fundraiser in Miami.

But Tuesday's electoral map raises questions about the depth of support for Crist, who showed no coattails for the likes of Republican CFO candidate Tom Lee or state Senate candidate Kim Berfield. Across Florida, he won smaller percentages of the vote than Jeb Bush did in 1998 and 2002.

Averaging Bush's county-by-county margins in those two cycles, Crist performed 4 percent worse statewide - and in some cases much worse. In conservative Escambia and Brevard counties, for instance, Crist was 7 percent below Gov. Bush's average margin.

The good news for Republicans is that growth trends favor their party.

Take Pasco County, once a true swing county, but increasingly Republican. In the last open governor's race in 1998, Bush won by 55 percent, while this time Crist won by 53 percent. Thanks to population growth, Crist still won 13,000 more votes than Bush did in 1998 (though 6,000 fewer than Bush did in 2002).

In Jim Davis' booming home county of Hillsborough, a former swing county turned Republican bastion, Crist's margin from Bush in 1998 dropped 3 percent, but he still picked up 23,000 more votes (25,000 fewer than Gov. Bush's total in 2002).

Other demographic trends could pose big problems for Republicans. Jeb Bush, fluent in Spanish and married to a Mexican immigrant, was immensely popular with Hispanics, Florida's fastest-growing demographic group. But two exit polls showed Crist either tying or losing to Davis among Hispanic Florida voters.

The new governor will have to do more than stand beside Sen. Mel Martinez to counteract that dilution of the Republican base. That ominous sign for Republicans may be best reflected in Davis' comfortably winning Gov. Bush's home turf of Miami-Dade, and Crist doing 8 percent worse than Bush did four years ago in Osceola County, with its exploding non-Cuban Hispanic population.

So Republicans and Democrats can both take heart from Florida's last Election Day, when the GOP lost ground but won the top prize.

Democrats probably are doomed if they don't start getting in the same universe as Republicans in terms of raising campaign money.

But this was the election that could have planted the 2000 recount state firmly in the red column. The map shows we're still purple heading to 2008.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.