Around the U.S. in 50 Days: Florida, part 1

As I have stated in previous articles here and elsewhere, I believe that Florida will be ground zero in electoral politics in 2012. Besides the presidential election, there is a heated Senate race and congressional elections along with redistricting drama best described as GOP ineptitude and two new seats in the House. Throw in an unpopular Republican Governor and the 2012 elections should be very interesting indeed.

In essence, Florida is like having to appeal to five states and five distinct constituencies in one. There is the panhandle region that has more in common with the Deep South rather than the sunny Florida depicted in tourism offices. There is the northeast corner dominated by Jacksonville and a large black population. The Gulf Coast is dominated by midwestern retirees who tend to be conservative, more so than their northeastern counterparts on the east coast of Florida. Then there is the Miami metropolitan area with their heavy Hispanic and Jewish populations and that large swath of independent territory known as the I-4 corridor.

A lot of attention will be paid to Florida by both parties this year. One can expect plenty of visits by both candidates, especially the growing Orlando area, the epicenter of the I-4 corridor region.

Other than perhaps Nevada or California, Florida is also ground zero for the negative economic effects of the collapse of the housing bubble as home prices have not appreciably rebounded and unemployment remains high. Under former governor, Jeb Bush, great strides were at least attempted to improve education in the state. Some were successful, while in others, the jury is still out. Several efforts have been replicated on the national level by, ironically, the Obama Administration. For a state reliant on tourism, the recession has taken its toll. Unfortunately, it is Rick Scott who is bearing the brunt of criticism for the state’s recent failures. As a result, his approval ratings are abysmally low and it has hurt the GOP brand in the state. If they remain this low until 2014, he should just pull a Perdue and bail out. As a result, one would suspect that the national GOP is calling for Scott to stay away from endorsements this year as they may very well prove toxic to any prospective GOP candidate.

As far as the presidential election goes, Obama barely won the state in 2008. One would expect those numbers to slip at least slightly in 2012. Whether they slip enough to translate into a GOP victory will depend upon the Republican message and whether it resonates with Florida voters. Obama’s approval ratings in Florida roughly mirror those at the national level as far as trend goes, but they are actually slightly above the national level. This should give the Obama team hope to keep Florida in their column. Perceptions among the elctorate as November nears will most likely determine how this state goes in 2012. If the rate of foreclosures or unemployment drops, then Obama’s chances will improve and he stands a better chance.

Obviously, voter turnout will be of paramount importance in the race. One of the problems, so we are told, is that if Romney is the nominee, he will have difficulty with energizing the conservative base. But, that may present a problem in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. Florida is not necessarily like those states. In fact, exit polls from the most recent Florida primary show that Romney won just about every demographic among the GOP electorate, some quite handily. He even won the born again/evangelical vote. While it is true that Romney essentially carpet-bombed the Gingrich campaign with generally negative advertisements in the state, it is also true that the voters took an equally negative view of this tactic. But, in a general election campaign against Obama, it could be the tactic that does energize the conservative voters in the state and increases turnout. There will no doubt be an appeal to the growing Hispanic population of the state- perhaps an Obama immigration reform proposal October surprise type thing. But, remember that the Florida Hispanic population is highly Cuban and they trend towards the GOP, although the second and third generation Cubans not so much. What could pull some votes towards the GOP even more would be having Marco Rubio on the ballot as his running mate. Personally, I would love to see a Rubio-Biden debate. In fact, I will go on a limb and predict that Rubio will be the man to run with Romney, or whoever the GOP nominee is in 2012 given the importance of Florida. Realizing that “favorite son” status does not necessarily seal the deal, given the closeness of the race in the Sunshine State, it would send a very strong signal to the growing Hispanic electorate here and elsewhere that the GOP is not exclusive of Hispanics and that not all Hispanics are liberal. Personally, I see no downside to a Rubio candidacy (other than possibly the experience factor being highlighted) besides the Senate losing a good conservative, Hispanic voice. Having Rubio on the ballot would be as groundbreaking as Geraldine Ferraro’s candidacy was decades ago.

The incumbent Democratic Senator, Bill Nelson, is seeking reelection. There are currently eight declared Republican candidates in the running, three of whom are highly credible. There were five until recently. Mike Haridopolos, president of the state senate, withdrew along with businessman Craig Miller who opted for a House seat campaign this year. There are also some names of interest that may yet enter the race. Rich Baker, the former mayor of St. Petersburg, Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll (who has deftly and successfully distanced herself from Rick Scott) and US representative Daniel Webster are still possible candidates.

Besides the money rolling into the state, so are the endorsements for the three most credible candidates that basically reflect the struggle for control of the GOP- the establishment versus the Tea Party/outsider people. Adam Hasner, the former majority leader of the state house, has received the backing of such conservative luminaries as Mark Levin, Fox analyst Monica Crowley, former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell, FreedomWorks, and Erick Erickson of this website. George Lemieux has received the endorsements from several state legislators and ex-Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. He would be the choice of the GOP mainstream establishment. And congressman Connie Mack IV has the backing of Haridopolos, Jeff Miller and Sean Hannity. As it stands now, obviously Lemieux has the most statewide name recognition having served in the Senate before. However, the problem with this assertion is his association with former Governor Charlie Crist whose name is mud among Republicans nationally and more so in Florida.

Until Mack entered the race, Lemieux was, despite that association with Crist, leading in the early polls. However, once Mack entered the race, he assumed the frontrunner status. The latest poll by PPP shows Mack with 36% of the vote and Lemieux with only 6%. Similar results were shown in polls by the Miami Herald, Mason-Dixon, and Quinnipiac polling in January of this year.

It makes sense if we view Hasner as the face of the insurgents and Lemieux as the face of the establishment. Mack represents the safe middle ground that can appeal to both groups. A review of his votes in the House show that he falls pretty much in the middle of the conservative pack. While voting against abortion funding, he also voted for stem cell research. He has called for a strong military, yet has been a vocal critic of certain aspects of the PATRIOT Act. In other words, Mack, when the chips are down, may express concerns that smack of moderation or libertarianism, but generally votes conservative. It is not a case of having it both ways, but it does position him to appeal to a broader electorate. The heavy conservative vote in the northern part of the state, especially the panhandle, is not voting for Nelson. Period! It is the voters in the I-4 corridor and elsewhere that are key to victory.

However, it became a two-man race when Hasner decided to withdraw his name and opt for a run for the U.S. House in Alan West’s old district. As a result, Mack probably has a more clear-cut road to taking on Nelson. Mack will likely highlight that association between Lemieux and Crist as a strategy and is credentials among the more conservative Florida voters are already established.

Next: Florida, part 2

Next: Florida, part 2