GOP stock rises in Florida's volatile political climate. Party surge puts governorship, legislative gains, within reach
Miami — Republicans now have a fighting chance to gain the governorship, and maybe even control of the Legislature, in Florida. With a comfortable victory in the Republican gubernatorial primary runoff Tuesday, Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez became the party's most serious contender in 20 years for the governor's office. He is also now cast in a key role in the GOP's national drive for ascendancy in state capitals.
The number of registered Republicans is growing rapidly in Florida, but the state trails many others in the South and Sunbelt in electing Republicans to state office. In fact, Florida's only GOP governor in this century, Claude Kirk (1967-70), is widely regarded as a one-term aberration.
If Mr. Martinez can break that pattern, Florida Republicans say, it will boost the party toward its goal of Republican majorities in the state House and Senate by 1990.
GOP candidates for the Florida Legislature expect strong financial support from the Republican National Committee because of the party's goal of winning control of more state legislatures. The party seeks control in more states of the drawing of state and congressional district boundaries, a basic tool in maintaining political power, and one now widely controlled by Democrats.
Martinez, a third-generation Floridian of Spanish descent, defeated former US Rep. Lou Frey in the GOP runoff by a 2-to-1 margin. Now he has his work cut out for him.
The Democratic nominee is a young former state legislator from Jacksonville, Steve Pajcic, who presents himself as the legitimate heir to Florida's popular Gov. Bob Graham. Mr. Pajcic, an urban Ivy Leaguer with a liberal voting record, scored a cliff-hanger win Tuesday against state Attorney General Jim Smith.
The Democratic runoff was so rancorous and divisive, with Mr. Smith running an aggressive negative campaign against Pajcic, that some analysts figure Republican Martinez as the frontrunner now.
The challenge for Florida Republicans is to translate the state's 2-to-1 majority for Ronald Reagan in 1984, its growing Republican voter registration, and its even more widespread conservativism into more Republican elected officials.
Much of their problem is that the last two Democratic governors, Mr. Graham and his predecessor, Reubin Askew, have been perceived to be competent and energetic. Republicans theorize that if they can elect an able governor, and Martinez is generally acknowledged to be a very able big-city mayor, then Floridians will be more inclined to elect state-level Republicans.
That theory has not worked in the past. Richard Scher, a political scientist at the University of Florida, notes that, historically, gubernatorial and legislative races have had no connection in voters' minds. The legislative contests have been seen as strictly local politics. ``That's not to say that it may not change,'' he adds.
The GOP has an opportunity this year to make gains in the state Senate. Of 20 seats up for election, 17 are occupied by Democrats. But the Republicans have a lot of distance to cover, since Democrats outnumber them 30 to 10 in the Senate.
In the 120-member House, Republicans made their first surge in 1984, picking up nine seats. They need 17 more for a majority. If they can keep their momentum, says Mike Zotti, communications director for the state GOP, they could conceivably win the House in 1988.
Even without majorities in the legislature, the governorship would at least give Republicans the power to veto a Democrat-drawn district map in 1990, when the next legislative reapportionments will occur.
In the Martinez-Pajcic race, voter turnout will be the key for the Republican, says Dr. Scher. Florida's growing ranks of new Republicans are largely from groups -- Cubans, young voters, and newcomers from out-of-state -- that tend to vote less frequently than the rural north Florida and urban south Florida Democrats.