TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Democrats tried something new and got the same result, losing the sixth straight governor’s race, possibly losing all three statewide offices on Tuesday’s ballot and winding up with a Senate race that’s too close to call.
In short, the Democrats’ blue wave hit President Donald Trump’s figurative red wall, and once again Florida maintained its reputation for close elections — with Republicans having the edge.
Republican Ron DeSantis defeated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum by less than a percentage point and three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was hoping a recount would reverse Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s narrow lead.
“It seems like we’re living up to our history,” said Bob Poe, who was Florida’s Democratic Party chairman during the 2000 presidential recount. “Florida was just being Florida.”
Tuesday’s results could help Trump when he seeks re-election in 2020, with DeSantis and Scott in a better position to use their offices to sway opinions if they maintain support with Florida voters.
And while Republicans swept Florida’s statewide races, Democrats again crept closer to winning, and may get a boost going forward from a new constitutional amendment that will restore felons’ voting rights.
But for now, Republicans maintain their dominance in Florida — even if by the slimmest of margins.
For the third straight governor race, a Republican won without winning half the statewide vote. In the Senate race, Scott led Nelson by more than 30,000 votes out of more than 8.1 million cast.
Florida’s election was largely a referendum on Trump. DeSantis’ primary campaign was based almost entirely on his and Trump’s mutual admiration. And while Democrats despise the president, Republicans love him. He came to Florida twice in the final six days of the election to encourage his base to show up for DeSantis and Scott.
It may have made the difference, and now DeSantis will be in a position to return the favor. Florida’s 29 electoral college votes will be critical to Trump’s re-election and having a sitting Republican governor will help.
Democrats did much better in heavily Democratic counties than they did four years ago when Scott beat former Gov. Charlie Crist, said University of North Florida political science professor Matthew Corrigan, who was part of The Associated Press team analyzing returns Tuesday night.
Broward County turnout went from 44 to 57 percent since the last midterm election. Similarly, Miami-Dade County increased turnout from 50 percent to 57 percent.
But Republicans amped up their turnout even more, Corrigan said. Sumpter County is home to The Villages, an enormous retirement community that overwhelmingly votes Republican. Turnout increased from 67 to 77 percent.
“Basically, the increase in turnout was across the board, but in some of these really Republican counties it was higher,” Corrigan said.
Longtime Tallahassee-based Republican political consultant David Johnson said that while the GOP again dominated at the polls, the state is still purple
“They turned out vote very, very well. We just turned out a few more,” Johnson said. “When it comes to the midterms, we know who our voters are and we know what we need to do to get them out and we do it. It’s more execution than it is a grand strategy.”
In the Senate race, Scott did what works for him. He spent more than $60 million of his own money to saturate the state with television and online ads and stuck to a very tight script. While Nelson easily won re-election in 2006 and 2012, he faced nothing like he did with Scott.
Scott repeatedly hit the theme that Nelson was a confused, do-nothing senator who has made a career in Washington toeing the party line. He also highlighted Florida’s improved economy under his watch and depicted himself as a strong leader through devastating hurricanes.
Florida Democrats’ strategy in midterm elections has been to nominate a moderate, white candidate from the central part of the state while targeting their turnout effort to the party’s South Florida stronghold and along the Interstate 4 corridor that runs from Daytona Beach in the east to Tampa Bay in the west.
But this year, Gillum was the party’s nominee. He was the first African American to be nominated for governor, and he ran as an unabashed liberal. His plan was to excite younger voters, minorities and the wing of the party that calls themselves progressives — groups that usually turnout in lower numbers in non-presidential election years.
And he also refused to focus just on Democratic-rich counties in the southeast corner of the state. He went into deep red and rural areas, saying the way to win was to reach out to the entire state and not just focus on South Florida.
The day before the election, when Democrats usually make a last pitch in South Florida cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Gillum spent his time in small north Florida enclaves.
Besides flipping two Republican U.S. House seats, the other victory for Democrats was a constitutional amendment that will restore the voting rights of most felons who have completed all terms of their sentences. That could potentially add 1.4 million people to the voter rolls.
While clearly not all felons are Democrats, minorities and the poor, groups that tend to back Democrats, are disproportionately incarcerated.
“Amendment 4 may change the balance of power,” Poe said. “That’s going to change some dynamics. That’s just going to change the math. Now the thing is, will those people register and will they vote.”