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Election Dominos

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  • | 2:02 a.m. November 19, 2010
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What. Gulf Coast politicians' major influence on state elections' outcomes.
Issue. Ambition for higher office proved to be a death knell for Florida Democrats.
Impact. Republicans control the governor's office, the Cabinet and the Legislature overwhelmingly.
By the Numbers. Click here for a list of seats that flipped from 'D' to 'R'

When the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature convenes for its regular session in 2011, they may want to toast former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Arguably, no one politician had more to do with Republican dominance in Florida on election day at every level than did Gov. Charlie Crist, who left the party to run as an independent.

It was Crist who lured Democrat state CFO Alex Sink to run for governor with his Senate bid. It was Crist who helped U.S. Sen.-elect Marco Rubio win by taking votes from Democratic candidate and now former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. And those two open seats then began a cascade of falling Democrats.

The irony is that Republicans only last spring lambasted Crist when he dropped out of the Republican Party to run for the senate.

Now they have a veto-proof majority in the Legislature — not that they need it — and may have an decade-long advantage due to redistricting.

Democrat dominos

“The whole domino effect started with Charlie Crist making a non-surprise decision,” says Rick Asnani, a partner with Cornerstone Solutions, a West Palm Beach-based political consulting firm.

The domino effect of that decision to again seek the next higher office led to Florida Republican legislators — for the first time ever — having veto-proof, two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate at the same time, and for the first time in the Senate.

Getting the governor's mansion and the three Cabinet seats all in the hands of the GOP is no small bonus, though not a first. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, now stands alone as the only Democrat who is a statewide office holder.

Starting with Crist, a St. Pete resident, Gulf Coast politicians arguably had more to do with the big shift to the right than any other region.

And Crist's home base of Pinellas County is ground zero. There's no shortage of irony here.

First, follow the dominos.

When Crist announced he was running for the U.S. Senate seat being kept warm by his appointee, Republican Sen. George LeMieux, that opened up the governor's seat.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican, and Sink, a Democrat, then ran for governor, which opened up both Cabinet seats.

McCollum and Sink both lost their bids, but their Cabinet seats were won by Republicans: Attorney General-elect Pam Bondi of Tampa, and CFO-elect and former Sen. President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach. Atwater gave up the last two years of his senate seat, but he had just completed two years as senate president.

Another Republican, Rick Scott of Naples, won the governor's race, edging Sink in the general election after upsetting McCollum in the primary.

Running for the open AG seat, Bondi defeated Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, in the general election. Gelber gave up the last two years of his first Senate term to run for attorney general.

And in the Democratic primary, Gelber, now 50, was opposed by State Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres. Aronberg, 39, a rising star in the Senate, gave up the last two years of his term representing a mostly Democratic district stretching from Palm Beach to Lee and Charlotte counties.

And that seat is now held by a Republican: Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington. She defeated State Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach who chose to seek higher office after just two years in the House.

This race might be considered the upset of the election given District 27 had 122,229 registered Democrats to 102,555 Republican voters for the Nov. 2 election.

Yet, Benacquisto, a former Wellington City Council member, won with 54% despite Republican having but 36% of the registrations. “I will forever be pleased with the domino effect by Gov. Crist's decision,” says an appreciative Benacquisto.

Asked the week after the election if Democrats, or Rader himself, miscalculated the rising Republican wave, Benacquisto agrees: “He believed all he needed to do was carry his Democratic portion of Palm Beach County. He believed he didn't need to campaign in Lee County.”

In another ironic twist given Crist's no-party candidacy, Benacquisto won thanks in good part to independents, according to at least one exit poll. She also cleaned up in Republican dominated Lee and Charlotte counties, with better voter turnout by Republicans.

Crist himself was a product of political ladder climbing. He'd come from being attorney general and had a two-year stint as the last elected education commissioner before that. Leading up to those offices, Crist was elected to the Florida Senate, representing Pinellas' District 16 in 1992. He lost a bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Bob Graham in 1998 before getting the Cabinet seat as education commissioner two years later.

Justice served

More irony is that District 16's state senator the past four years has been Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg. Justice may have taken a cue from Crist's ladder climbing strategy choosing last year not to seek re-election in 2010, and instead gambled on a campaign to unseat U.S. Rep. Bill Young. The gamble was that he hoped Young, a popular 20-year congressman, might retire.

Instead, Justice lost badly to Young, getting barely one-third of the vote. “The fact is that so many of these elected officials are opportunists looking for the next better job, and end up with egg on their face and out of a job,” says Chris Ingram, president of Tampa-based political consulting firm 411 Communications. “The list is long,” he notes.

Worse still for Justice and the Democrats, the District 16 state senate seat went back to Republicans. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is now the first state senator to be term-limited out of the Senate and subsequently re-elected.

Latvala won big too with 64% of the vote defeating Democrat Nina Hayden, a Pinellas school board member and public defender. She was embarrassingly outmatched, not even raising $20,000 for her campaign. Latvala raised roughly $800,000.

Justice, who says he had hoped to protect his seat for his party, also miscalculated when two area state representatives, according to Latvala, begged off, leaving the outgunned Hayden as the Democrat's candidate. “It didn't work out as I thought or had planned,” reflects Justice.

Latvala's and Benacquisto's wins gave the Senate a 28-12 edge, one more than needed to pass the two-thirds threshold. With the Florida House taking five seats from Democrats that gave them a veto-proof two-thirds majority. Now, of the House's 120 members, 81 are Republicans, putting the power firmly in GOP hands.

It was two other Pinellas legislative seats that flipped to Republicans, and with the Sarasota District 69 seat, provided three-fifths of the House gains.

Crist's home district has just 37% registered Republicans, but managed to put Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, in office. Brandes, a real estate and financial investor, beat former Democrat Rep. Bill Heller 51.2% to 48.8%. Heller, according to Latvala, was one of the legislators encouraged to run for Justice's senate seat, but declined the chance.

District 51, which encompasses parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough, had similar results, though the district does have nearly 5,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Republican Rep. Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, a pool contractor, defeated Democratic incumbent Janet Long in a three-way race that included a TEA Party candidate. Ahern took 50.3% of the vote to Long's 44.1%.

Perhaps most costly to Democrats is the loss by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a leader in the Democratic Caucus as the Democrats' policy council chair, and a political science professor at New College. Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, a former county commissioner, took 51.5% of the vote.

More dominos, and in 2012?

More Democrat dominos are already tumbling in the post-election fallout. Pinellas County Democratic Party Chairman Ramsay MacLauchlin is on his way out.

“The chairman has said he's not going to run again so there's going to be change,” says Justice. “Same thing at the state party,” he adds, referring to former U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, who stepped down Nov. 12.

The dominos may continue to fall in 2012, and thanks may also be due to Crist even then.

LeMieux, whose profile has been substantially raised by Crist appointing him to replace Martinez for 16 months, is a likely candidate to return to the Senate if he can defeat Nelson.

Other political ladder climbers, perhaps including Crist himself, may enter the race. Imagine the possibility, and the added irony if Crist ran as an independent against LeMieux and Nelson, and siphoned off enough votes from Nelson to hand the seat to LeMieux.

Future candidates may want to consider consultant Ingram's advice first: “It's normal to want to aspire to move on to something bigger and better, but if you are truly acting to be a good public servant as they claim to be, why are they trying to climb the ladder?,” asks Ingram. “Sometimes the public sees through that.”

Blind ambition?

Democratic carnage left in Gov. Charlie Crist's wake — none immediately faced term limits:

U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek — lost general election for U.S. senator

CFO Alex Sink — lost general election for governor

State Sen. Dave Aronberg — lost primary for attorney general primary

State Sen. Dan Gelber — lost general election for attorney general

State Rep. Kevin Rader — lost general election for state senator


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