Political News

The swingiest state in the country just did it again

Posted November 19, 2018 11:08 a.m. EST
Updated November 19, 2018 12:04 p.m. EST

— Over the weekend, Florida Republicans got a double dose of good news: former Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) was declared the state's next governor and Sen. Bill Nelson (D) conceded defeat to outgoing Gov. Rick Scott (R). That makes Florida a rare bright spot for Republicans in a 2018 election that, since November 6, has looked better and better for Democrats.

So what happened in Florida? And why? Plus, most importantly, what does it all mean for 2020? I reached out to Adam Smith, the political editor of the Tampa Bay Times, for answers to all of those questions -- and more!

Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: Florida is the success story of the 2018 election for Republicans. What happened for the GOP there that didn't happen in other states?

Smith: Keep in mind that less than half a percentage point difference in Florida's US Senate and governor's race, and you'd be asking about the extraordinary and history drubbing the GOP took in Florida. These were virtually tied elections. There was some good news for Democrats: Florida's congressional delegation now looks more like Florida, with 14 Republican-held seats, and 13 Democrats. Democrats gained a bit of ground in the legislature and did pick up one state office, agriculture commissioner.

But no, there was no big Democratic wave in Florida, while there probably was a bit of Trump wave. What happened for the GOP was simply that base Republicans turned out in big, big numbers.

Sen. Bill Nelson losing to his first strong challenger in decades was not a shock, but I think many Democrats had their hearts broken about Andrew Gillum's loss because misleading and/or poor public polls pointed to a more-likely-than-not win.

Cillizza: Did all the national attention for Gillum overrate him as a politician?

Smith: I do think Gillum proved himself to be a sensational politician in terms of personal appeal, authenticity and inspiration. The DeSantis campaign was stunned at how strong he remained even after they threw everything at him and then threw more. Usually, Democrats push aside their losing gubernatorial nominees, but Gillum is not done by a long shot.

What some of the national media underestimated I think was the amount of baggage Gillum had. Crime problems in his city and a seemingly ongoing FBI investigation would immediately sink less talented candidates. In Gillum's case, none of that stuff was aired out in the primary because almost no one thought he had a real shot at winning the nomination.

Cillizza: Rick Scott never wins by much -- but he always wins. Why?

Smith: Money, hard work, money, discipline, money and luck. Many a Disney automaton comes off as more human than Rick Scott, but he also happens to be a ferocious campaigner. That robotic demeanor keeps him relentlessly on message, he is a truly tireless fundraiser and campaigner, and he has the bank accounts to spend $65 million(!) of his own money to barely, barely beat a career politician at about the worst time to be running as a career politician.

Cillizza: Trump was a VERY active presence in Florida for DeSantis and Scott. Any idea how big a difference he makes?

Smith: Bigly difference. I don't think anyone here doubts that without Trump firing up the GOP in the closing week of the campaign, Scott and DeSantis would probably would have lost. Tellingly, Scott shifted his strategy in the closing days to stop keeping his distance from Trump and instead join him at his Florida rallies.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "What the 2018 election should teach us about Florida in the 2020 presidential race is ____________." Now, explain.

Smith: "Wide open."

Think about how extraordinary it is for a mega-state like Florida over and over and over again to wind up with dead-even statewide races. In a state with 13 million voters, the last three presidential races, the last three gubernatorial races, and the last US Senate race have been decided by about 1 percentage point. That is stunning, and there is no reason to think anything will be different in 2020.