By Jim Bleyer
An incumbent GOP governor’s favorability ratings scrape bottom in the low 30s. Sledgehammer budget cuts to education, environmental, and health programs litter his four-year tenure. He takes credit for a rebounding state economy that was actually fueled by Federal Reserve policy and stimulus programs launched in Washington.
Spicing this stew of vulnerability are a cartoonish appearance, an awkward public demeanor and the inability to articulately answer straightforward questions.
This is Florida Governor Rick Scott.
Despite megatons of baggage and a party registration disadvantage, Scott on Tuesday weathered the challenge of ex-governor Charlie Crist, an affable, tireless campaigner who previously won three statewide races as a Republican and captured the vast majority of newspaper endorsements.
Crist’s philosophical epiphany/party switch was an issue in the Democratic primary when he dispatched his woefully funded and rather unknown primary opponent by 3 to 1. With Democrats commanding a 450,000 registration edge, Crist didn’t need votes of scorned Republicans to win the general election. One-fourth of the state’s registrants, 2.7 million, have no party affiliation.
The challenger surrounded himself with a professional campaign team, including Washington imports, who failed to capitalize on his built-in advantages and exploit Scott’s multiple susceptibilities. Instead, the group allowed its candidate to be painted as the failed incumbent and pilloried with gross exaggerations if not outright lies. A few of the costly missteps:
–Allowing Scott to take any credit for the markedly improved employment numbers that were ignited by federal efforts and the natural economic cycle.
–Squandering valuable resources on attack ads about Scott’s Medicare fraud. Now 10 years old, the issue failed to resonate sufficiently in 2010. Why would that change in 2014?
–Not using the Attorney General’s race to galvanize the Afro-American vote. With the bland and already once-failed George Sheldon and the more charismatic Perry Thurston declaring their candidacies, Crist should have intervened. The Thurston and Sheldon camps already discussed the possibility of one of them stepping aside. The enticement of a Florida Supreme Court appointment would likely have motivated Sheldon to shelve his candidacy.
–Involving himself in unpopular, peripheral issues. Scott’s team bombarded the airwaves with Crist’s “I love Obamacare” declaration. Crist also publicly announced his support for Greenlight Pinellas, a highly controversial, $2.5 billion transportation expansion initiative that at the time was polling around 50 percent in one of Florida’s most populous counties with a traditionally high voter turnout. In the end, voters hammered the proposal nearly 2 to 1. No doubt negative spillover occurred in neighboring Hillsborough County where voters throttled a similar light rail initiative by nearly 3 to 2 in 2010. Crist did not need to weigh in on either issue. It cost him dearly.
Scott outspent Crist 2 to 1 with estimates for their respective campaigns reaching $120 million and $60 million. But being outspent hardly guarantees failure. Astute direction, a dedicated team, and targeted messaging can easily overcome financial disadvantages.
A striking example: No Tax For Tracks, the group that destroyed the Greenlight Pinellas initiative despite being outspent 12 to 1. A 30-member committee, headed by Barb Haselden, a politically savvy insurance executive, coordinated the effort that involved 300 volunteers throughout the county. Number of paid operatives: 0. Spending: slightly over $100,000.
NTFT faced a formidable array of deep-pocketed Greenlight supporters including CEOs of large corporations. Ninety percent of Pinellas officeholders, including small town mayors, county commissioners, and state legislators got on board. The Pinellas County Transit Authority deployed its personnel and hired public relations pros to spread the gospel.
Greenlight proponents claim they spent $1.2 million but, in reality, the figure was closer to $1.8 million. The two local daily newspapers–supporters of the initiative–donated news pages to propagandize the virtues of light rail, withholding mounds of negative material that would damage the cause.
WMNF, the local public radio station that prides itself on not airing commercials, accepted donations from the transit authority employee directly in charge of the public information barrage. WMNF suppressed at least one news report that would have negatively impacted Greenlight.
But NTFT fought back with the judicious use of direct mailers, phone banks, and social media. The grass roots organization and allies such as Ax The Tax blanketed the electorate with facts that were being ignored by the mainstream media. Highlighted were PSTA violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, its executive director’s spotty track record in other cities, independent studies showing light rail impractical, and the special interests that would benefit from an expensive ghost train with low ridership.
Polling showed Greenlight Pinellas favored in late spring into the summer. But as NTFT intensified its outreach, the tide turned. The last poll three weeks prior to Election Day showed the initiative losing 54-46. When all the returns were counted, Pinellas voters buried Greenlight 62-38.
NTFT workers were ecstatic on election night. They cheered, danced, and ate Philly cheese steaks from a food truck in the front yard at Barb Haselden’s insurance building.
Meanwhile, three miles to the southeast at the swanky Renaissance Vinoy Resort overlooking Tampa Bay, the band quit playing. The thinned out gathering stood silently as Charlie Crist gave his concession speech.