I am not writing this from Florida proper, but from an occupied territory within Florida’s borders. I hail from Broward County, where roughly 7 in 10 voters this year chose Democrats over Republicans, and where none — not a single one — of those Democrats won their five statewide races outright Tuesday.
Andrew Gillum, the Tallahassee mayor who would have been Florida’s first black governor, led 16 of 17 polls taken in the state since mid-October and was given a 77 percent chance of winning by FiveThirtyEight’s projection model. He appears to have lost to Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, who was credibly accused of running a racist, fearmongering campaign, by about 50,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast. Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democratic senator, was widely expected to win, pulled along on the dynamic Gillum’s coattails. Nelson is currently losing statewide to tycoon and outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Scott by fewer about 30,000 votes out of 8.1 million.
My corner of Florida, the state’s bluest and one of its most populous, voted for Democrats in concentrations that rival those of Philadelphia, Manhattan and Chicago. And many state Democrats are pointing to some positive signs: They flipped two House seats in South Florida. They got voters to restore the franchise to the state’s estimated 1.7 million convicted felons, while banning offshore drilling and indoor vaping. Key West elected its first openly lesbian mayor, which is awesome, and would be even more awesome if I could afford to live in Key West or had any assurance that it won’t be strangled by sea-level rise before I die. In any case, some Democrats look at last night’s results and say, hey, Florida is still within reach.
Sure. It’s been just within reach since 2006, the last time a Democrat won a statewide office.
As pundits go crazy trying to reconcile the Sunshine State’s turnout with the national results, let me offer my own theory: “Florida” is increasingly a meaningless political entity, except in Republican electoral win columns. It is not a purple state, but a dystopian Republican frontier of America’s systematic “Big Sort” — a collection of ultra-blue principalities surrounded by and alienated from an entrenched ultrared state government.
Do you seek a bellwether for the United States’ chances of surviving Trumpism? Look to Florida, where the Mar-a-Lago spirit has been a governing ethos for many years already. So you want to know how Florida survives. The answer is it probably won’t — not as a functioning state that tends to the needs of its 21 million people. Florida is going to get more divided, less governable, and probably more susceptible to oligarchs and fiefdoms than it already is.
That’s the way Republicans have made it since they gained a trifecta in the state in the 1990s. A quarter-century of GOP legislative dominance has wrecked state services, created a haven for tax-hating rural retirees, gerrymandered districts repeatedly and relentlessly, bloated Tallahassee with outside money and lobbying influence, and created an electoral infrastructure that reliably delivers 50.1 percent of the vote to, uh, whatever Republican you’ve got. The party then accumulates those slight victories into a decades-long mandate, ensconcing its elite, rendering any alternative governance increasingly hard and unlikely.
Rick Scott is the Meriwether Lewis of this Republican strategy, the party’s prototypical pioneering wealthy neophyte candidate. After eight years in the governor’s mansion, his first public-sector job, Scott — like Trump — remains largely incompetent, awkward, ignorant of norms, full of fake optimism and loved only by his strongest partisans. But unlike Trump, Scott is capable of shutting up, comfortable telling more conventional lies and actually willing to blow massive portions of his dubiously gotten personal fortune to stay in races he should lose.
As of Wednesday afternoon — as his edge over Nelson hovers around recount territory — Scott has won three statewide elections in eight years by a total margin of 155,871 votes out of 18,976,891 cast, or 0.8 percent of the total vote. In those three elections, Scott pumped at least $124 million of his own wealth into his campaigns. If you believe public records, Scott has spent more than half of his net worth (or less than a quarter of his family’s net worth) to squeak out three victory margins just above automatic recount level. In Tuesday’s race, as in previous ones, he bought a slew of last-minute ads appealing to the id-impulses of Floridians. Scott won over-65s by double digits in this retiree-heavy state, although by Election Day his campaign message had largely boiled down to “Look how old my opponent is!”
DeSantis, Scott’s gubernatorial heir apparent, called his black opponent “Andrew Kill-em,” parroted Trump lies calling Gillum’s hometown of Tallahassee the state’s murder and crime capital, refused to return campaign donations from an outspoken racist supporter, and told voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum’s “socialist,” “extreme radical” ideas.
“I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum responded. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” DeSantis won 6 of 10 white voters in Florida on Tuesday.
How did he and Scott run up enough of a margin in conservative counties to counterbalance the historic blue turnout in places such as South Florida? We may never really know, I suppose. In unrelated news, 65 percent of Walton County voters approved a measure Tuesday to fly a rebel flag on a local courthouse that bills itself as “Florida’s first Confederate monument.” They also voted for DeSantis over Gillum by 52.5 percentage points.
So, yes, you can look at the consistent Republican overperformance against polls in Florida in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and now 2018, and say that, without the obscene amounts of money and animus, plus a quarter-century of single-party domination, all these squeaker contests might otherwise be walkovers for sanity. But this is what Florida is. This is what it’s been molded into. The state is not going to get bluer: But its blue oases will, even as a red tide permanently claims more and more of the lands between them.
Take the ostensible victory of the night: voters’ approval of Amendment 4, which extends the franchise to the roughly 10 percent of the state population who have been convicted of a felony. Florida felons are now theoretically able to vote, but they’re practically reliant on a Republican governor, secretary of state and legislature not standing in the way of their attempts to exercise those restored rights. Democratic hopes (and GOP fears) of a blue wave in 2020 led by the newly franchised in Florida seem Pollyanna-ish when you look at the state’s gerrymandering and voter-suppression tactics in recent decades — though those look tame when compared with anti-voter GOP regimes in states such as Georgia and North Carolina.
Even if Florida Democrats start winning, they’ll have to contend with another newly approved amendment to the state Constitution that makes raising taxes impossible without a supermajority of votes in the legislature. In other words, if any politician in this 50.5 percent majority state actually wanted to improve a crumbling state Department of Children and Families, or beef up public disaster and health-crisis response, or rebuild a gutted public education budget, they’d have to get two-thirds of the state House and Senate to agree. (Republicans maintain comfortable, largely impregnable majorities in both chambers.)
For all the talk about Florida’s purpleness and unpredictability, for all of the Democratic turnout efforts and number-crunching and target-hitting, we have a stable model: The blue parts get bluer, while the red parts get redder, the election results stay slightly red, and the entrenched political culture gets much redder. In the future, Democrats will find more voters here, and Republicans will find more ways to make it hard for those votes to be counted, and even harder for them to lead to changes in government. There is no center to hold, only anarchy loosed upon the third-largest state in America.