Florida smackdown: Why Crist vs. Scott is marquee governor's race of 2014

The race pits a former Republican governor against the current Republican governor in a race that has already been nasty and expensive. The women's vote will be key.

Wilfredo Lee/AP
Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist waves to supporters while speaking at a victory party after Florida's primary election on Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Mr. Crist defeated Nan Rich, a former Senate Democratic leader who had been campaigning for governor longer than Crist has been a Democrat.At right is Crist's wife Carole.

The marquee governor’s race of 2014 is on: Florida’s former Republican governor, Charlie Crist – now a Democrat – will face its current Republican governor, Rick Scott, in November.

The outcome of Tuesday’s primary was never in doubt. Mr. Crist beat former state Sen. Nan Rich (D), 74 percent to 26 percent. Governor Scott beat two little-known candidates with nearly 88 percent of his party’s vote.

Still, the turnout numbers hint at trouble for Crist.  Republican turnout was higher by more than 100,000 votes, in a state with more Democrats than Republicans.

“A lot of the disaffected are longtime progressive Democrats, who do not really believe in the metamorphosis of Crist,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, Tampa. “The second group is older women who are disgusted with the fact that Crist never had the courtesy to debate Nan Rich, who is a longtime, loyal, Democratic woman senator.”

It’s not that these Democrats won’t vote for Crist in November. But they might not be inspired to work local phone banks and raise money for him and other Democrats on the ballot. And that could hurt turnout among less-motivated voters, a chronic problem in midterm elections.  

Working in Crist’s favor is the fact that Florida Democrats haven’t won a governor’s race in 20 years, and they’re hungry for victory.  

The Sunshine State is the biggest prize of all the 2014 governor’s races. Now the third most-populous state in the country, Florida is the biggest presidential battleground. Whoever wins the governor’s office in November will be positioned to lend organizational support to his party’s presidential nominee in 2016.

But Crist vs. Scott  could be an expensive race to the bottom. Neither is all that popular, and they’ve already spent months – and tens of millions of dollars – tearing each other down. Party money and spending by outside groups add to the parade of negativity.  A Quinnipiac poll last month showed Crist with a 40 percent favorable rating, and Scott with 43 percent job approval.

Crist’s biggest challenge will be to prove to Democrats he’s really one of them. Crist was Florida’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, and had served in public office as a Republican almost continuously before then since 1993. In 2008, he was on GOP presidential nominee John McCain’s short list for running mate.

In 2009, Crist decided not to run for reelection as governor, opting instead to run for Senate in 2010. But the tea party movement had other ideas, and got behind former state House speaker Marco Rubio in the GOP primary. Crist quit the Republican Party to run as an independent, and lost the general election to now-Senator Rubio in a three-way race. When Crist announced he was a Democrat in late 2012, few doubted his motive. Crist vs. Scott was on.

For both men, the challenge will be to overcome a poor public image. A wealthy former hospital executive, Scott has never seemed at ease in public life, and faced a steep learning curve when he first took office.  After nearly four years under Scott, Florida’s economy has improved; unemployment is 6.2 percent, same as the national rate. That could help Scott, as could President Obama’s low job approval.

Crist’s problem is that he’s such a political animal, voters don’t know if they can trust him.  And then there’s his infamous hug with Mr. Obama. In 2010, when Crist was still a Republican, he greeted Obama with a hug on a visit to Florida – a picture that played to Crist’s detriment in his 2010 Senate race. Now, he’s Obama’s guy in Florida, and Democrats hope base voters – including those disaffected women – will conclude that Crist was really one of them all along.   

But to independent voters, who aren’t enamored of Obama, The Hug may not play so well.

Another turnout driver could be a ballot initiative to allow medical marijuana in the state.  

“Democrats think it will draw young voters to the polls,” says Ms. MacManus. Other says it will be as big a draw for conservatives, worried that their kids will have easier access to marijuana, she says.

To pass, the Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative – a.k.a. Amendment 2 to the state constitution – must get more than 60 percent of the vote. 

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