Next year's Florida gubernatorial election--which could pit presidential brother and current GOP Governor Jeb Bush against former Attorney General Janet Reno--is developing into the marquee melee of the midterm elections. The Democrats are already framing the contest as a referendum on the policies of George W. Bush and as a possible harbinger of 2004.
The state that gave President Bush his Electoral College margin of victory is looming so large that the state Democratic Party, for the first time, is staging fundraisers outside Florida. The first such event was held June 11 in New York City: a $1,000-per-person luncheon with Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham as the featured speaker. "People around the country see the importance of a Democratic governor in Florida in 2002," said state party chairman Bob Poe. "If we can win here, we can win in 2004." The Democrats, who have never spent more than $10 million on a state race, will probably spend $20 million this time. "George W. Bush's Administration has a pro-special interest agenda, and he will tap those special-interest wallets to defend his brother," said Jenny Backus, spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee. "But we'll be competitive."
State GOP chairman Al Cardenas says his party will not be outspent. As for Reno's possible candidacy, he says, "She would be a strong candidate at the beginning but weak at the end. She can win a primary easily enough because she's known and because she's from south Florida, where 45 percent of primary votes are. But in time she'll be a very polarizing figure." Cardenas insists Reno would not be able to spend time attacking Jeb's policies because she'd be busy defending her own performance in Washington. "Elián, Waco, campaign fundraising, the FBI, espionage, ad infinitum," Cardenas said. "You can't run a campaign against a standing governor that way." Cardenas says Democratic leaders may privately prefer another, less controversial candidate, but those leaders have denied that.
Democrats have been itching for revenge against the Bushes since the presidential election was decided in December. But when Graham, the most popular politician in the state, and Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth both confirmed that they wouldn't run for governor, the party was left without a well-known candidate to challenge Jeb. The announcement by Reno in mid-May that she might be interested changed all that.
Jeb Bush announced his candidacy June 8, and the next day Vice President Cheney hosted a fundraiser in Orlando that reportedly raised $2.5 million for the campaign. Reno says she's still deciding whether she'll run. Several other Democrats are interested in the nomination, including former Congressman and US Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson from the Florida Panhandle, Congressman Jim Davis of Tampa and State Representative Lois Frankel of Palm Beach County. Poe insists the nomination is wide open, but many observers feel that if Reno chooses to run, the nomination is hers. "Janet is the 800-pound gorilla," says Miami attorney H.T. Smith, a black leader and a Democrat. "If she decides to run, the other candidates should just fold their tents."
Not only is Reno as well-known as Jeb but more than half the state's registered voters are women. A recent Miami Herald poll had Bush beating Reno 49 to 43 with a 4-point margin of error. Democrats say that for a sitting governor to garner less than 50 percent at this stage means Jeb is very vulnerable. Bush supporters disagree, but they're in accord that the campaign will be expensive and extremely contentious, especially if Reno runs. "The Democrats are going to put down everything they've got to bring down this governor, as payback for the presidential race last year," says Ron Sachs, a Tallahassee-based media consultant who backs Bush's performance as governor and thinks he will be re-elected. "Yes, it's also indisputable that it will be a comment on George W.'s first two years."
Observers on both sides also agree that the political landscape has changed in at least one way since November 7. "There is a much more energized Democratic base," says Frankel, speaking not just of her county in southern Florida, home of the infamous butterfly ballot. "Lots of people feel they were disfranchised, and they are angry. Some of them have become much more active. That will help us get out the vote." State party chairman Poe, a resident of Seminole County in central Florida, agrees. "We had more people at our county party meeting ninety days after the election than we had ninety days before," he said. "People are angry about what happened." Frankel and Poe insist that if the Democrats simply get out the vote the way they did in November, and if all votes are counted this time, they can beat Jeb. Some 180,000 votes were discarded after November 7, either because they contained no vote for President or more than one. The majority of those ballots were cast in Democratic precincts, especially in black precincts, which went 9 to 1 for Al Gore. The election was decided by 537 votes.
Mac Stipanovich, chairman of Jeb Bush's unsuccessful 1994 race for governor and still a supporter, agrees that Democrats will be motivated to seek revenge but says that doesn't mean they'll get the votes they need. "Core Democratic constituencies are more energized, but I don't think their numbers are any greater," he said. "And Jeb is a first-term governor. In 2002 he'll have accomplishments to point to that'll make him an even stronger candidate with swing voters than he was last time."
Blacks across Florida--about 15 percent of the electorate--are incensed by Jeb Bush's ending of affirmative action in the state. They also blame him for the faulty Florida electoral system that cost their candidate the White House [see Lantigua, "How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida," April 30]. A St. Petersburg Times poll in February said blacks disapproved of Bush 92 to 8. Meanwhile, Cuban exiles--8 percent of all voters--still demonize Reno for ordering the raid on the house of Elián González and sending the 6-year-old back to Cuba. Democrats usually need about 20 to 25 percent of the Cuban vote to win a statewide race; most observers say Reno would be lucky to get 10 to 15 percent. "And you also have some whites up there in the Panhandle who are one step away from being vigilantes. They're still angry with Reno about Waco and continue to fan those flames," says Bob Levy, a political consultant and lobbyist who sees Bush beating Reno.
Marvin Dunn of Florida International University, who is a leading voice in the black community, says, "One of the issues will be Bush's support of the voucher system and the effect on public education. Reno can hurt him there. She can make the campaign big business versus the common man." But, he adds, "If it happens it will be a nasty, nasty race. And that's apart from the candidates themselves. Everyone else around them will make it blistering, gutter Miami politics at their worst."
The person who may worry most about that negative potential is George W. Bush, the beneficiary of Florida's flawed electoral system. The events of the next seventeen months could turn Florida's race into a referendum on the November 7 election and his subsequent policies, with his brother Jeb as the sacrificial lamb. "For example, if the economy goes bad, it won't just trickle down, it will rain real hard on Jeb," says Sachs.
George W. is acutely aware of the situation. He recently paid his third visit to Florida since assuming office. While there he named a Floridian to be the new director of the National Parks Service and expressed his support for restoration of the Everglades. Earlier this year he raised the possibility of oil exploration off the Gulf Coast, angering state environmentalists and forcing brother Jeb to break ranks and publicly oppose drilling.
Jeb will run, in part, on a $1.6 billion tax cut and a streamlining of government over the past two years, but Democrats say that is exactly where they can attack him. "In order to achieve that tax cut, he had to sharply cut back state services," says Poe. "For example, he made cuts in the division of forestry, and we have forest fire season upon us. We have wildfires out there, and there are watchtowers that are empty because of his cuts."
The forest fire regions are not the only ones that may face the heat. Most people feel that if Bush and Reno face off, it will be hot everywhere in Florida until November 2002.