Even with advantages, GOP wary of 2014 elections
Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, October 6, 2013 at 5:17 p.m.
ORLANDO — Florida Republicans face a pivotal election next year, when their control of Tallahassee and their potential for reclaiming the White House will be at stake.
As party leaders met here for two days of meetings and strategy sessions, the state GOP had plenty of reasons for optimism. Only one Democrat holds statewide office — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. The Republicans hold every other statewide office, including the governor’s mansion, three state Cabinet seats and strong majorities in the state Legislature and congressional delegation.
They also have an organized, well-financed state party that reported Saturday that it has more than $9 million in cash on hand.
Yet there is clearly some unease and sense of risk as the GOP looks to re-elect Gov. Rick Scott next year and maintain its other seats.
In a breakfast speech before the state Republican Party’s quarterly executive board meeting, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — a former top leader among Republicans in the U.S. House — contrasted the ability of the GOP majority to “solve problems” in Tallahassee with the dysfunction in Washington, D.C.
But Putnam, who is running for re-election to his cabinet seat, warned that “the culture of problem solving that exists today in Tallahassee has to be fiercely protected” in the 2014 elections.
Ground zero will be the battle over Scott’s re-election. And it will be a national fight, as both parties see control of the governor’s office in the nation’s largest swing state as critical for their presidential candidates in 2016.
The Democrats “know if they get the governor’s mansion it’s a 3- or 4-point advantage for them running for president two years later,” Putnam said. “So this is a proxy fight for the White House.”
Putnam also warned that losing the governor’s seat could endanger, in the long term, the party’s hold on other offices, ranging from the Cabinet to the state House and Senate.
“That can’t happen on our watch,” Putnam said.
But Putnam also acknowledged the “funk” that settled in after the Republicans lost the presidential race in 2012, including losing Florida for the second time to Barack Obama.
“I know how frustrating it must be to motivate your volunteers and to get people excited coming off the disappointment of the last presidential election,” he said, telling the party activists “we have got to shake ourselves out of the depression … and make darn sure that Florida does not backslide in the 2014 elections.”
The biggest threat to the GOP’s dominance in Florida looms in the as-yet-unannounced candidacy of former Gov. Charlie Crist, who used to be a fixture at these Republican gatherings before he left the party and joined the Democrats.
Putnam had strong words for Crist, recalling how he once compared himself to such conservative stalwarts as Ronald Reagan and Jeb Bush.
“Charlie Crist learned at the knee of Charlie Crist,” Putnam said. “He worships at the altar of Charlie. He reports to Charlie. He is for Charlie — and that’s it.
“This state desperately needs and deserves someone who is more focused on creating jobs and building a better future for our kids than trying to restore his reputation of getting stomped by Marco Rubio,” Putnam said.
Yet, striking a common theme heard during the two days of GOP meetings, Putnam said “we have a difficult election to focus on.”
One challenge is Florida’s shifting electorate, with Putnam noting that a number of congressional seats and state legislative seats now have majorities claimed by voters who officially shun any party affiliation.
And reaching them is complicated by the fact that voters shed party labels for different reasons in different parts of the state, Putnam said, including younger voters turned off by the electoral process and disaffected Democrats and Republicans.
Reaching those voters will be critical in a polarized electorate. For instance, a new Democratic poll showed Crist leading Scott by a 57-33 percent margin among voters who called themselves independent or had an affiliation other than Democrat or Republican. It was part of the reason why the Public Policy Polling survey gave Crist an overall 50-38 percent lead over Scott.
But Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry, Putnam and others said one way the GOP hopes to identify, reach and persuade voters in 2014 will be through an improved use of social media, data “analytics” and other technology — techniques that the Obama campaign used successfully last year.
Curry said goal is to make more “quality” contacts with voters who will support the party rather than rely on outreach campaigns focused on “quantity” contacts.
Putnam said that an improved technology campaign will help counter the more gossamer campaign style of Crist.
“We have to know our audience and we have to tailor our message to bring them back into the fold,” Putnam said about reaching disaffected voters. “If you want a brighter, better future for Florida, it’s not about the cotton candy message that some candidates bring about Florida the state with the most beautiful name. It’s about Florida the state with the brightest future.”
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