State Politics

Voters gave Fla. many new faces

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida’s representation in government underwent a huge change in 2010 and voters can either blame or thank former Sen. Mel Martinez, depending on how they feel about it.

Republican Martinez’s December 2008 announcement that he would not seek a second term created a domino effect that led to an election year unlike Florida had seen in more than a century.

If Martinez had just stayed put, Gov. Charlie Crist probably would have run for re-election. Same with Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum. Instead, Florida has a new U.S. senator, a new governor and three new Cabinet members.

And it was a year when tea party fervor over federal spending helped Republicans take back four U.S. House seats, including two candidates considered safe when the election cycle began.

“We could write a book, couldn’t we,” said Deborah Cox-Roush, the state GOP’s vice chair. “It was an unusual year and one we might not ever see again. It’s a second chance, and we have to work very hard to make sure that we keep the momentum going into 2012.”

The year began with political pundits assuming that McCollum would be the Republican facing Democrat Sink for governor. Then Naples businessman Rick Scott shook things up by investing tens of millions of his own dollars to defeat McCollum in the primary and later to beat Sink.

Despite repeatedly raised questions about massive Medicaid fraud at the Columbia/HCA hospital chain while Scott was CEO, Scott was able to buy name recognition through television ads that portrayed him as a political outsider who would use his business experience to turn around the state’s economy. His catch phrase, “Let’s get to work,” was heard over and over again.

The Senate race also had several twists and turns. When the year began, Crist was struggling to maintain his lead over former House Speaker Marco Rubio, a tea party favorite who quickly gained support by criticizing President Barack Obama’s spending policies and Crist’s support of Obama’s $787 billion federal stimulus package.

Rubio began raising more money than Crist and the once-obscure candidate was getting national attention. When he passed Crist in the polls, speculation began that Crist would run as an independent candidate. Crist finally made that announcement in late April, just before the deadline to get on the ballot.

On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek struggled to gain attention, but still remained the presumptive nominee. That was until billionaire Jeff Greene got in the race on the final day to qualify and began spending millions on ads.

Greene took a lead in the race and appeared heading toward victory, but his campaign ended up faltering in a circus-like atmosphere with stories about his ties to former boxer Mike Tyson and troubled actress Lindsay Lohan. Greene’s efforts to talk about policy were often sidetracked with questions about excessive partying on his yacht and similar issues.

Meek won the nomination by a landslide, 57.5 percent to 31 percent, but trailed badly throughout the general election. As Crist tried to pull votes away from Meek, there was pressure on Meek to drop out of the race so the split Democratic vote wouldn’t help Rubio.

Meek stayed in, and Rubio won by a wide margin, taking about 49 percent of the vote compared to Crist’s 30 percent and Meek’s 20 percent.

Republicans were able to take advantage of anti-Democratic Party backlash and easily swept all three Cabinet seats, with Pam Bondi winning the attorney general’s race, Adam Putnam winning the agriculture commissioner position and Jeff Atwater earning the chief financial officer seat.

In the House races, Republican Dan Webster knocked Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson out of office after one term. Republican Sandy Adams did the same to Rep. Suzanne Kosmas. Allen West, who was trounced by Democratic Rep. Ron Klein two years earlier, used the tea party movement to reverse those results, easily beating Klein by nearly 9 percentage points.

In north Florida, Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd lost by more than 12 percentage points to Steve Southerland, ending his seven terms in office.

“Someone said to me the other day Allen Boyd’s never had a close race and that’s true. And this one wasn’t either. Allen’s always won that seat handily,” said Rod Smith, who was Sink’s running mate and who is likely to become the state Democratic Party chair next month.

He said voters frustrated with the economy took their anger out on the party in charge, and Democrats at the state level suffered because of leadership in Washington.