Florida doesn’t just have frequently strange news stories. Its politics can be peculiar too. The electorate is blue, with roughly 250,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Yet the state government is red with a clear-cut Republican majority in both the House and Senate. And its presidential vote is purple, swinging back and forth between both parties and picking the presidential winner since 1996. In fact, it is the only state to have done this, prompting many political observers to remark that “as Florida goes, so goes the nation.”
Of course, it hadn’t always been like this. It wasn’t all that long ago that it was unfathomable that Republicans could dominate the state government. For almost the whole first century and a half of its existence as a state (the major exception being the Reconstruction Era of the late 19th century), Florida was ruled by the Democratic Party.
Perhaps the most famous political event in Florida is the 2000 presidential election recount, where George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by only hundreds of votes after many controversies and a Florida Supreme Court case. Since then, Florida has stayed arguably the most prized state in presidential politics and the premier “swing state” of the Electoral College.
But there is a whole lot more to the story of this diverse state.
A Very Brief History of Florida
The Early Years — A Democratic Stronghold
Florida became a U.S. territory in 1819 through the Adams-Onís Treaty, ceded by the Spanish who had held the land since well into the 16th century. In 1821, the U.S. started formally occupying the land and installed future 7th President of the United States Andrew Jackson as its first territorial governor.¹ In 1845, Florida became the 27th state of the union.
Long before it became the highly-populated tourist hotspot it is today, Florida was the last place many Americans wanted to live in. The vast majority of the land was hot, muggy, swampy, backwoods, etc. or some combination thereof, and little of note was happening in the state back then. Florida was viewed as such for a long time, from its time as a territory throughout most of its first century as a state.
As part of the deep South, Florida was an overwhelmingly Democratic state for most of its first century as a state. However, it still remained a very sparsely populated state, poor and isolated. Those who did live there almost all lived in the northern half. For over its first century of existence as a part of the United States, Florida held basically no major political importance.
The Post-WWII Population Boom
But that started to heavily change with the coming of World War II. Florida started to become a popular site for military personnel to train and live when the U.S. entered the war. Immigrants and residents of other states began flocking there. The tourism industry of Florida began its infancy. The state started to become far more racially diverse, and senior citizens migrated to the sunshine.
Thus began the meteoric rise of Florida’s population. The rise was so steep that close that to 16 million new residents flocked to the state between 1950 and 2010², and now Florida only trails California and Texas as the most-populous state of the union. Eventually, more residents of Florida would come from somewhere outside of the state (by 2010, this was true of about two-thirds of the residents)³. The diversity that Florida would experience would lead to it becoming a microcosm of the overall diversity of the United States.
The Republican Surge
Yet for all the dramatic changes Florida was undergoing, the partisan composition still remained heavily one-sided. It was still as politically “blue” as perhaps any other state. As David Colburn writes in his book From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans: Florida and Its Politics Since 1940, “from 1900 to 1980, the Democratic Party constituted the only political game in Florida.”⁴
For a long time, winning a substantial office as a Republican in Florida was almost unthinkable. It was only in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War that Republicans made up a sizable portion of the state legislature. In the waning years of that era and beyond, Democrats would cement their grip on the state’s legislative branch. From 1900 to 1960, there were many years the Democrats held every single seat in the legislature, and in the times they didn’t they still held Republicans to a single-digit number of seats.⁵
But in the 1960s, the seeds of change could be seen. Although Democrats were still the majority by far, Republicans slowly started making more inroads in the Florida Legislature. Claude Kirk became the first Republican Governor of Florida since Reconstruction, assuming office in 1967. It would be a relatively short-lived victory for the Republican Party, however, as Kirk was often at odds with the legislature’s Democratic majority and even his fellow Republicans,⁶ and he found himself out after only one term.
Despite the fact that the next few governors — Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, and John Mixson (who only served the last several days of Graham’s second term as Graham was elected to the U.S. Senate) — were Democrats and Republican numbers in the legislature slightly dipped, long term change in the partisan composition of Florida was setting in. The only other Democrat to be elected Governor of Florida since then was “Walkin’” Lawton Chiles (although his Lieutenant Governor, Buddy McKay, would serve roughly the last month of Chiles’s second term following Chiles’s sudden death in office). Republicans would recapture the Governor’s Mansion in the 1998 election of Jeb Bush, and they have held it since.
The legislature came under Republican control shortly before the governor’s office did. Democrats and Republicans split the Senate at an even 20–20 in 1992, with Republicans finally assuming the majority in 1994. The House was not far behind, with Republicans assuming a majority in 1996. After so many years of blue, the government was red.⁵
Although Florida’s government is firmly in Republican control, calling Florida a “red” state would be a bit of a misnomer, as will be discussed below.
The Politics of Florida Today
All of this buildup has led to a decisively Republican government in the state today. But isn’t quite reflective of the electorate.
The executive branch of Florida’s government has 11 state executive offices, held by 6 Republicans and 5 nonpartisans (note that they are nonpartisan offices, not necessarily independents holding these offices).
Governor Rick Scott and the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam — are all Republican. Republican Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera was elected on the 2014 ticket with Scott. The other Republican in the executive branch, Ken Detzner, is the secretary of state, which is appointed by the Governor of Florida (it was, however, once an elected office).
The Commissioner of Education (Pam Stewart), Commissioner of Insurance (David Altmaier), Secretary of Environmental Protection (Noah Valenstein), Executive Director of the Department of Economic Opportunity (Cissy Proctor), and the Public Service Commission are nonpartisan offices.
The State House has a total of 120 seats, 75 of which are currently occupied by Republicans and 41 of which are occupied by Democrats (4 are currently vacant). Members serve 2-year terms and are limited to 4 consecutive terms (8 years). The House Speaker is Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’Lakes), the Majority Leader is Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero), and the Minority Leader is Janet Cruz (D-Tampa).
The State Senate has a total of 40 seats, 23 of which are currently occupied by Republicans and 16 of which are occupied by Democrats (1 is vacant). Members serve 4-year terms are limited to 2 consecutive terms (8 years). The Senate President is Joe Negron (R), the Majority Leader is Wilton Simpson (R), and the Minority Leader is Oscar Braynon (D).
While the Democratic share of the voting population has dwindled and Republicans have closed the gap, the plurality of the electorate is still blue. Democrats still have a roughly 250,000 voter advantage compared to Republicans. NPAs are also a large proportion of the electorate (26.85%), making them critical to statewide elections. NPAs outnumber one of the two major parties in a few counties.
How is the voting population spread out?⁷
There are 67 counties in Florida. Democrats are concentrated around the bigger cities of the state, such as Miami (Miami-Dade County) in the southeast, Tallahassee (Leon County) in the north, and Orlando (Orange County) in central Florida. As a result, Democrats tend to be more prevalent in the more-populated counties than Republicans are. The bastions of Democratic voters are in the most southeastern counties: Miami-Dade (586,669), Broward (577,395), and Palm Beach (387,513). There are also large amounts of Democrats in counties like Hillsborough (326,555) — where Tampa and my alma mater, the University of South Florida, are located — and Alachua County (83,309), where Gainesville and my current school, the University of Florida, are located.
Republicans are far more spread out but are also more numerous in virtually all of the less-populated counties throughout the state. Because of this, looking at maps of how each county votes in presidential and gubernatorial elections may make it seem like there are a lot more Republicans than there actually are since there is so much red compared to blue. The Panhandle, the northwest segment of Florida, is particularly red. Panhandle counties with large amounts of Republicans include Escambia (93,881), Santa Rosa (76,331), and Bay (61,959). Collier County in the southwest also has a large contingent of Republican voters (106,244).
What Does the Future Hold for Florida Politics?
Florida will continue to be a major player in presidential politics, even if Florida politicians still continue to come up far short of reaching the Oval Office. It is still the biggest prize of the Electoral College, and it will likely add a couple more Electoral Votes following the next census.
While how individual state legislative races will play out is outside the scope of this post, it is unlikely that the Republican control of both chambers will let up anytime soon. Perhaps their majorities will dwindle in the coming midterm elections, possibly in part due to Trump.
The gap between Republicans and Democrats in terms of registered voters will likely continue to slightly decrease, but it is unlikely that Republicans will take a plurality in the near future. NPAs could also play an increased role in future elections, especially if they continue to grow their share of the Florida electorate.⁸
Let’s take a quick look at the marquee match-ups in 2018 for Florida.
U.S. Senate Race: Bill Nelson (D) vs. Rick Scott (R)
Florida’s primary last week made the race between Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and current Republican Governor Rick Scott for Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat official. Florida’s biggest elections rack up exorbitant amounts of cash, yet this election could very well surpass the record by a fair margin.
To briefly overview that election, the major ratings organizations have that election as a toss-up, and for good reason. Incumbency tends to be an advantage, but Rick Scott is more well-known. He is in the news far more often than Nelson is, and because Scott has had shorter terms in office (4 years compared to 6 years for Nelson) his name will be fresher on voters’ minds. Nelson has also struggled with name recognition in polls, including among his base.
Neither one of them has faced an opponent as tough to beat as each other, however. Scott also has colossal amounts of his own cash, but Nelson certainly won’t be short on funding either. Success for Nelson will depend in part on how well Democrats can make an association in some voters’ minds between Scott and Trump. Democrats will also likely need a larger-than-usual midterm turnout from their base, something that the party hasn’t seen much success with in recent midterms.
There are all sorts of other variables that could impact the U.S. Senate race — including the other race that will be discussed here.
Governor’s Race: Andrew Gillum (D) vs. Ron Desantis (R)
In a result that surprised many observers, Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum defeated former U.S. House Representative Gwen Graham (who is also the daughter of former Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham). Bernie Sanders-endorsed Gillum now takes on the Donald Trump-endorsed Republican nominee Ron Desantis. Desantis is a current U.S. House Representative who shot up in recognition and support following Trump’s endorsement, enabling him to surge past Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam. Putnam was an early favorite for many observers and had received plenty of endorsements from Florida politicians.
Given their biggest endorsers (Sanders and Trump respectively), both Gillum and Desantis run the risk of being seen as too extreme. While that will play well to their core bases, the necessity of garnering independent voters complicates matters. Whether the power of the “blue wave” will take over Florida or the power of the Trump endorsement will keep the governor’s office in the hands of Republicans remains to be seen. There is still plenty of time between now and Election Day, and this election might very well go down to the wire.
At least one thing is for certain, however. Democrats will be pushing harder than ever to win this race. While that is perhaps an obvious fact, what may be less obvious is the fact that this isn’t just about pushing back against Trump for Democrats. The last time they won a governor’s race was in 1994, when Lawton Chiles was reelected. This drought will add even more urgency to winning, much like it did in 2014 when Democrat Charlie Crist (who himself was a one-term governor when he was still a Republican) very narrowly lost to Rick Scott in Scott’s re-election bid.
No matter what happens, buckle up. It’s going to be a big election season in Florida.
- History.com. “The U.S. acquires Spanish Florida — Feb. 22, 1819.” https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-u-s-acquires-spanish-florida
- David R. Colburn. 2007. From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans: Florida and Its Politics Since 1940. Pg. 4. University Press of Florida: Gainesville.
- David R. Colburn. 2007. From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans: Florida and Its Politics Since 1940. Pg. 5. University Press of Florida: Gainesville.
- David R. Colburn. 2007. From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans: Florida and Its Politics Since 1940. Pg. 13. University Press of Florida: Gainesville.
- Michael J. Dubin. 2007. Party Affiliations in the State Legislatures: A Year by Year Summary, 1796–2006. Pgs. 44–45. McFarland & Company, Inc.: Jefferson, NC.
- Florida Department of State. “Claude Roy Kirk, Jr.” https://dos.myflorida.com/florida-facts/florida-history/florida-governors/claude-roy-kirk-jr/
- Data from this section come from the following source: Florida Department of State. “Voter Registration — By County and Party.” https://dos.myflorida.com/elections/data-statistics/voter-registration-statistics/voter-registration-monthly-reports/voter-registration-by-county-and-party/
- Dr. Susan A. MacManus and David J. Bonanza. Sayfie Review. “Who ARE the NPAs?” https://www.sayfiereview.com/featured_column?column_id=53