Florida surprise: How a Democrat could be elected governor

In an election cycle tilted toward Republicans, Alex Sink, the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, is holding on to a modest edge in the polls.

By , Staff writer

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    Alex Sink, Florida gubernatorial candidate, answers questions for the press at an event for The Children's Movement of Florida in Pinellas Park, Florida on September 20.
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    Alex Sink, Florida gubernatorial candidate, holds Khyrian West at an event for The Children's Movement of Florida in Pinellas Park, Florida on September 20.
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Alex Sink strolls into the dining room at Kingsway Country Club, in Lake Suzy, Fla., dressed casually in a red blouse and navy capris, ready for her sixth campaign event of the day.

It’s a friendly crowd, as these things usually are, with a healthy smattering of firefighters and teachers – both loyal Democratic constituencies – and at least one Republican Sink backer, a local lawyer who isn’t happy with the GOP nominee for governor, former health-care CEO Rick Scott.

Here in rural southwest Florida, it’s Republican territory, but Ms. Sink, the state’s chief financial officer and Democratic nominee for governor, is undaunted. She is visiting all 67 Florida counties, from the deep blue to deep red. In her remarks, she touts the endorsements of the state’s two law enforcement unions, which usually go Republican, and of Republican elected officials around Florida. She also talks up her background in the private sector: 26 years in business, including as president of Florida operations for Bank of America. She would be the state’s first female governor.

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Perhaps Sink’s most noteworthy feature is that she could actually win, in a national election cycle tilted heavily toward Republicans. With a Republican leading in the Florida race for US Senate, that could result in a split result in this swing state. Since mid-July Sink has held a steady three-point (on average) lead over Mr. Scott, who appeals to some voters with his private-sector track record of job creation but loses others over the $1.7 billion fine his company, Columbia/HCA, paid for Medicare fraud. A three-point lead is margin-of-error territory. Bottom line, the race is a tossup.

“I’m not a career politician,” says Sink in a Monitor interview. She’s a lifelong Democrat, raised on a farm in Mt. Airy, N.C., with the accent to prove it, but she says she’s not running a partisan campaign. “We have too many problems and issues and challenges in our state right now to get caught up in partisan politics, in my opinion.”

Even if Sink insists the campaign is all about who has a better plan for Florida and its problems – including high home-foreclosure and unemployment rates – she says she’s prepared for what the wealthy Scott can throw her way. He spent $50 million of his own money to beat the GOP establishment favorite, state Attorney General and former longtime Rep. Bill McCollum, in a nasty Aug. 24 primary battle, and there’s more where that came from.

Scott has been trying to tie Sink to Obama, and she has come back with, “he’s talking about Obama, he’s not talking about the issues that face Florida.” So far, Sink hasn’t dropped the heavy artillery – ads pounding Scott over his former company’s misdeeds – but Florida political analysts say just wait, it’s coming.

Scott’s ethical challenges are already part of why he’s trailing Sink, if only slightly, analysts say. (In his defense, Scott says he was unaware of the overbilling of Medicare that was going on when he was at Columbia/HCA.) In the primary, Democrats and independents saw all those ads against Scott, and even if they didn’t cost him the nomination, they cut into his margin of victory. He won a plurality of the GOP vote, 47 percent, four points ahead of McCollum.

"If [Scott] didn’t have the baggage, he’d win the race,” because of this year’s Republican tilt, says Brad Coker, president of Mason Dixon polling, who is based in Jacksonville, Fla. “But that other stuff is a bit disturbing to a lot of people.”

Another problem for Scott is that he has only been a Florida resident just long enough to qualify for governor, seven years, and so is not well known around the state. Sink has a long record of civic involvement in Florida. McCollum, too, has been around forever. That gave him establishment support, but in an anti-establishment year, that hurt McCollum with some voters. At a "tea party" rally in St. Augustine, Fla., last Saturday, Scott was welcomed with open arms (though he is not a tea party candidate, per se).

“A lot of McCollum supporters are still very, very angry at Scott,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, Tampa. “And you have the taint of corruption going with him. So you get business community types and even probably a certain proportion of Republican women who will go in [Sink’s] direction but will stick with [Republican GOP Senate nominee Marco] Rubio.”

The big problem for Sink going into November will be the Democrats’ enthusiasm gap. “Her challenge is really, frankly, going to be turnout,” says Ms. MacManus.

Mr. Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House, is picking up steam in his three-way race against the Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D). The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls now shows Rubio at 40 percent, Governor Crist at 30 percent, and Congressman Meek at 22.

For Crist, still popular as governor, the challenge of running as an independent has taken its toll. He doesn’t have an institutional party base from which to fundraise and draw upon campaign talent.

In the end, Florida could end up delivering a split decision – Democrat for governor, Republican for Senate. If so, that would be very Florida: the biggest swing state in the country, home to Bush v. Gore, with a steady record of ticket-splitting. In 1986, the Sunshine State sent Democrat Bob Graham to the Senate and Republican Bob Martinez to the governor’s office. In 1994, Republican Connie Mack won for Senate and Democrat Lawton Chiles won for governor. Fifteen of Florida’s congressional seats are held by Republicans, 10 by Democrats.

Or the state could see a Republican sweep. The national winds are certainly blowing in that direction, but in a race for state office, local factors not involving Washington are always in the mix.

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