For someone not even on the ballot, it was a tough election for Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott.
President Barack Obama is poised to become the first Democrat in 68 years to twice win the state, which still hasn’t finished counting votes. Scott’s party lost seats in both the state House and Senate. Voters also rejected Scott’s $20 million tax cut for small businesses and a constitutional amendment that would have made it tougher to implement Obama’s health-care overhaul.
Those defeats, coupled with a 38 percent approval rating, put Scott among the country’s most vulnerable incumbents heading into the next two years when 36 governor seats are up for election, including 22 held by Republicans.
“Florida would be at the top of my list where Democrats think they can win,” said Jessica Taylor, senior analyst at Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that tracks elections.
Democrats also will focus on other states with Republican governors that voted for Obama, including Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, she said.
Republicans next year will control at least 30 governor’s offices, the most since 2000, as the party won the North Carolina governor’s office from Democrats on Nov. 6 and fended off Democratic challengers in three other states. The governor’s contest in Washington state has yet to be decided, with votes still being counted there as of yesterday.
Obama was leading Republican Mitt Romney today by 60,799 votes, or 0.7 percentage points, with Palm Beach County still tallying absentee ballots, according to the Florida Division of Elections website. A margin of 0.5 percentage points or less triggers an automatic recount under state law. A lengthy ballot with 11 constitutional amendments slowed the counting. Florida was the final state to finish counting in 2000, when it took weeks to tally Republican George W. Bush’s 537-vote margin.
Scott declined to interpret the election results in Florida or say what it means for his own race.
“My goal is to just keep focusing Florida on where we’re going,” Scott told reporters in Tallahassee on Nov. 7. “We’re going to be the No. 1 state for job creation, the No. 1 state to get a degree, the No. 1 state to be able to afford to live.”
Rick Wilson, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist, said it’s unlikely that Scott’s Democratic opponent would have a staff in the state like Obama’s, whose campaign said it had 106 offices and thousands of volunteers.
“The Obama campaign’s message in Florida was that Romney is an evil capitalist who wants to take away birth control and kill Big Bird,” Wilson said. “They weren’t putting out ads that had Rick Scott in them.”
Obama’s allies used Scott to attack Romney. A 30-second ad from the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees labor union that aired during the primary morphed Romney into Scott.
Priorities USA Action, a super-political action committee run by former Obama aide Bill Burton, aired a similar television ad in the final days of the campaign. That spot used a picture of Romney shaking hands with Scott and asked viewers to “connect the dots” between the record $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine paid by HCA Holdings Inc., where Scott was chief executive officer, and the profit earned by Bain Capital LLC, which Romney founded, after selling a company that later pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud.
Democrats also used Scott to motivate voters, pointing to a bill he signed cutting from 14 to 8 the number of days that polling places could open for early voting and criticizing a program he started to search for noncitizens on the registration rolls. The program inaccurately sought to exclude more than 2,000 residents, mostly Hispanic voters in Miami.
“I credit Governor Scott for re-igniting our fire,” said Bishop Victor Curry of New Birth Baptist Church in Miami, who organized voter turnout rallies in Miami’s black communities. “I don’t think people would have been as motivated to turnout if it wasn’t for him.”
Democrats last won a Florida governor’s race in 1994, when incumbent Governor Lawton Chiles defeated Republican nominee Jeb Bush. Bush won the seat in 1998, the first of four consecutive Republican victories.
Scott has already raised $4.9 million for his 2014 race, including $50,000 on Nov. 6, Election Day, from the Florida Retail Federation, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit backed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Macy’s Inc. and Walt Disney Co. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida has given $350,000 while Florida Power & Light Co. and billionaire Sheldon Adelson have donated $250,000 each.
Scott spent $73 million of his own money on the 2010 race and won by 1.1 percentage point, the closest governor’s race in Florida since 1876 and the first candidate since 1916 to win with less than 50 percent of the vote, according to the Florida Handbook, a compilation of state data and history.
Since being elected, Scott’s approval ratings exceeded 39 percent just twice in 16 polls from Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University.
Scott generally stayed on the sidelines in the presidential election. He rarely shared a stage with Romney. Romney strategists asked Scott’s team at one point to tone down statements heralding improvements in the state’s economy.
Democrats picked up seats in the legislature, eliminating a two-thirds majority Republicans held that allowed them to waive rules and overturn vetoes. Eight of the 11 constitutional amendments put on the ballot by the legislature were defeated.
Democrats won seats in the U.S. House delegation, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, won re-election by more than 1 million votes and Obama was poised to became the first Democrat to capture Florida a second time since President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944.
“Rick Scott’s agenda was an issue in races across the state and voters rejected it,” said Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist who oversaw state House races. “Rick Scott should be worried.”