Florida’s gubernatorial contest a race to the bottom

by H.B. Koplowitz

“It’s official” is one of the most overused cliches in journalism, but it’s official. Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott will face former-Republican-governor-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist in what is already an expensive, nasty and hotly contested general election Nov. 4.

As expected, both handily won their respective primaries Tuesday. Unofficially, the two candidates and their parties and operatives have been campaigning against each other for months, in a race to see which can make the other more unpopular.

The Florida Democratic Party recently produced a 30-second spot accusing Scott of being “too shady for the Sunshine State.” The ad focuses on a deposition Scott gave in 2000, when he was chair and CEO of Columbia/HCA Health Care, which was being investigated for Medicare fraud. During the videotaped deposition, Scott took the Fifth Amendment 75 times. The company eventually paid the federal government $1.7 billion, which the Justice Department called “by far the largest recovery ever reached by the government in a health care fraud investigation.”

In turn, the Florida GOP released an ad linking Crist to criminality. The ad claims that when Crist was governor, Florida Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein “gave hundreds of thousands of campaign cash to control Crist’s appointments of key state judges.” The PolitiFact “Truth-O-Meter” found that Scott did take money from Rothstein and put him on a “key” commission that recommended judges, but that there was no evidence the swindler controlled Crist’s judicial appointments. Rothstein was convicted in 2010 for a $1.4 billion Ponzi scheme and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Crossing the line from negative ad to political dirty trick, in the days leading up to the primary, 2 million Florida voters received robocalls that began, “Hi, this is Charlie Crist calling to set the record straight.” The call, which was also turned into a TV ad and website, goes on to say, “I’m pro-life. I oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants, I support traditional marriage, and I have never supported a new tax or big spending program …. Floridians need a consistent, conservative governor that they can trust.” The robocall did not make it clear who produced it, with a woman at the end of the recording saying it was paid for by “conservatives.” According to the Miami Herald, “Conservatives” is the name of a political committee run by Stafford Jones, a Florida Republican operative “who has a history of trying to damage Democrats in primary elections.” Crist indeed recorded the message — when he was running in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2006. Since then, he has expressed more liberal positions on social issues, but the message effectively reminds Democrats just how conservative Crist had been as governor.

In June, another shadowy group called “Progressive Choice” spent $49,000 on radio ads reminding voters that when Crist was a legislator in 1995, he sponsored a bill to bring back prison chain gangs, earning him national attention and the moniker “Chain-Gang Charlie.” The group funded another ad, aired on black radio stations, blaming Crist “for a lost generation of African Americans” because he supported tougher drug-sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. The political operative behind the ads, Jamie Fontaine-Gansell, told the Orlando Sentinel they were necessary to spark debate over Crist’s Republican past.

Democrats have asserted the group is a front for Florida Republicans, but according to Talking Points Memo, Fontaine-Gansell has worked for Democratic Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, and is the founder and president of a Baltimore-based public affairs company whose clients have included Planned Parenthood, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the 2012 Marylanders for Marriage Equality campaign. Because Progressive Choice is incorporated in Delaware as a 501(c)4, and bought the ads two months before the primary, Florida law does not require it to disclose its donors.

Meantime, Democratic operatives and Crist associates got an amendment on the November ballot that would legalize medical marijuana. Crist supports Amendment 2, while Scott does not. Democratic strategist Ben Pollara of United for Care, which is spearheading the referendum effort, denies it is an attempt to use “pot power” to draw more liberal voters to the polls. But Republicans in the legislature parried by passing a bill legalizing a strain of medical marijuana that doesn’t get people high, which Scott signed into law.

The last time a Democrat won a governor’s race in Florida was 1994, when Lawton Chiles narrowly defeated Jeb Bush. This year’s race is expected to be the most expensive in the state’s history, with Scott spending around $100 million, and Crist about three-quarters that much. The negative campaigning seems to be working, especially for Scott. The latest polls indicate the governor has erased a 5-point deficit and leads Crist by a percentage point, which is too close to call.

The polling aggregation website and blog FiveThirtyEight notes that Scott and Crist could make history in another way — they “are teetering on becoming the least-liked pair of candidates for any governor’s race in the past 10 years.” In a Quinnipiac survey in July, about 45 percent of Floridians had an unfavorable opinion of the governor, compared to 40 percent with a favorable opinion, while Crist was disliked by 42 percent, and liked by 40 percent. No other governor’s race currently has both candidates with “negative net favorable ratings,” and it’s highly unusual for both gubernatorial candidates to finish a campaign with more people disliking than liking them. According to FiveThirtyEight, it’s only happened twice — the 2000 Illinois governor’s race, won by Rod Blagojevich, and the 2009 New Jersey governor’s election, won by Chris Christie.

© H.B. Koplowitz 8/28/14

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