NPR

Florida Governor's Race: Familiar Faces, Big Money, Brutal Ads

Democrat Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida (left), and Rick Scott, the current Republican governor of Florida, listen to the moderators during a gubernatorial debate on Friday. The two are facing off in a tight race that's fueling a barrage of negative campaign ads. (AP)

Florida is home to the most expensive race in the country this midterm election — one of the nation's closest and nastiest gubernatorial contests.

incumbent Republican governor Rick Scott is facing former Florida governor Charlie Crist, a Democrat. Both candidates are well-known, both are prolific fundraisers and outside groups are pouring millions of dollars into the race. It's all combined to make it one of the nation's closest and nastiest gubernatorial races.

On paper, Scott has a lot going for him. He's an incumbent, with nearly unlimited money, in a state that's finally in economic recovery. But after four years of chronically low approval ratings, his bid for re-election is turning out to be anything but easy.

Florida is a state almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans control the legislature and all the top state offices, but in the last two Presidential elections, Barack Obama mobilized Democrats and carried the state.

And Crist, the Democratic candidate for governor, is hoping to replicate that in this election.

At a campaign stop in a Miami suburb recently, Crist met with Marcela Parra, a college student upset about recent cuts in Florida's "Bright Futures" scholarship program.

"Four years ago, you would have qualified for a Bright Futures scholarship, back when I was governor, essentially," he says, as she agrees. "Now with Rick Scott and a change in policy, you don't qualify anymore."

Charlie Crist is the challenger in the race, but to Floridians, he's a familiar face. He was a Republican when he served as governor. But a lot has changed since then. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, first as a Republican, and then as an independent. Now, Crist is a Democrat, running for a seat he left behind just four years ago.

It's a remarkable political transformation — one the Scott campaign lampoons in TV ads. One ad shows Crist announcing his various campaigns: as a Republican, an independent and then a Democrat. "Flippin' unbelievable," says the voiceover.

Crist often paraphrases Ronald Reagan, saying, "I didn't leave the Republican party. It left me." And he quotes another Republican popular in Florida.

"Jeb Bush said it better than I could ever say it. He said, 'Today's Republican Party appears to be anti-women, anti-minority, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-education, anti-environment — the list goes on,' " he's said.

Crist is being outspent by Scott in the race, but has mounted his own relentless barrage of attack ads. Many hark back to Scott's tenure as head of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., a hospital chain hit with what at the time was the nation's largest-ever fine for Medicare fraud.

"Taxpayers and seniors got cheated," says the voiceover on one Crist ad. "But Rick Scott walked away with millions."

They're charges that were leveled against Scott when he first ran for governor. Scott overcame them in that race and is working to do so again, by turning them around and attacking Crist.

"In 2010, the Democrats attacked me. And I said, when I ran a company, I will take responsibility for the actions while I was the CEO," Scott said during the debate. "In contrast, Charlie's never taken responsibility for anything."

Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida, says after months of wall-to-wall negative ads, many voters are dazed and confused.

"If you're a person who doesn't really follow politics 24/7, you're having a very difficult time figuring which of these is telling the truth," MacManus says. "We have had more negative ads, longer. It's been almost non-stop."

Last week, in their first debate, Scott and Crist laid out their positions on a series of issues. On many there's a stark difference.

On the five-decade long Cuba embargo — a perennial Florida issue — Scott supports it. Crist wants to lift it. On gay marriage, Crist is for it. Scott opposes it and reminded debate viewers not so long ago, Crist did also. Crist supported a state ban on same-sex marriage but later said that position was a mistake.

"Charlie said he took that position for political expediency," Scott said in the debate. "So, my concern today is, what positions has he taken today for political expediency?"

It's a charge that fires up Republicans — many of whom feel betrayed by Crist's switch in political parties. But it's also aimed at independent voters who may wonder, after his political transformation, what exactly Charlie Crist stands for.

Crist's campaign, for its part, hopes to win over independents, but is putting much of its focus on getting Democrats out to vote.

Crist is one of the few Democrats running this election not distancing himself from President Obama; first lady Michelle Obama will be campaigning for him in Florida later this week.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Two bits of recent political history are shaping this fall's election.

MARTIN: Six years ago in 2008, Democrats had huge success in Senate races. Now those 6-year terms are up. Democrats must defend all those seats, and they're at risk of losing the Senate.

INSKEEP: Four years ago in 2010, Republicans won big in governors' races. Now those 4-year terms are up. The GOP is defending many seats, and they are at risk of losing ground.

MARTIN: We'll check in on both kinds of races now, starting with an incumbent governor facing the electorate. Florida Republican Rick Scott faces a challenge from former Governor Charlie Crist.

INSKEEP: It's among the closest and nastiest races in the nation and also the most costly. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: On paper, Rick Scott has a lot going for him. He's an incumbent with nearly unlimited money in a state that's finally in economic recovery. But after four years of chronically low approval ratings, Scott's bid for reelection is turning out to be anything but easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: In Miami, we also need to practice sigamos trabajajando. Say sigamos trabajajando.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Sigamos trabajajando. Sigamos trabajajando.

ALLEN: It's Governor Rick Scott's campaign slogan, let's keep working. He was in Miami recently making a pitch to Hispanic voters. Florida is a state almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans control the legislature and all the top state offices, but in the last two presidential elections, Barack Obama mobilized Democrats and carried the state. The Democratic candidate for governor, Charlie Crist, is hoping to replicate that in this election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE CRIST: You must be Marcela.

MARCELA PARRA: Marcela, yes.

CRIST: I'm Charlie.

PARRA: Nice to meet you.

CRIST: It's very nice to meet you.

ALLEN: In a campaign stop in a Miami suburb recently, Chris met with Marcela Parra, a college student upset about recent cuts in Florida's Bright Futures scholarship program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRIST: Four years ago, you would've qualified for a Bright Futures scholarship.

PARRA: Right.

CRIST: Back when I was governor, essentially. And now with Rick Scott and the change in the policy, you don't qualify anymore.

PARRA: No.

ALLEN: Charlie Crist is the challenger in the race, but to Floridians, he's a familiar face. He was a Republican when he served as governor but a lot has changed since then. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate - first as a Republican and then as an Independent. Now Crist is a Democrat, running for a seat he left behind just four years ago. It's a remarkable political transformation, one that Scott lampoons in TV ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV CAMPAIGN AD)

CRIST: I'm running as a Republican, an Independent. I'm running as a Democrat.

UNIDENTIFED MAN #1: Flipping unbelievable.

ALLEN: Crist often paraphrases Ronald Reagan, saying I didn't I leave the Republican Party, it left me. And he quotes another Republican popular in Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRIST: Jeb Bush said it better than I could ever said it. He said today's Republican Party appears to be anti-women, anti-minority, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-education, anti-environment - the list goes on.

ALLEN: Crist is being outspent by Scott in the race but has mounted his own relentless barrage of attack ads. Many hark back to Scott's tenure as head of Columbia HCA, a hospital chain hit with, what at the time, was the nation's largest ever fine for Medicare fraud.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Taxpayers and seniors got cheated, but Rick Scott walked away with millions.

ALLEN: Their charges leveled against Scott when he first ran for governor. Scott overcame them in that race and is working to do so again by turning them around and attacking Crist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: In 2010, the Democrats attacked me. And I said when I ran a company, I will take responsibility for the actions while I was a CEO. In contrast, Charlie's never taken responsibility for anything.

ALLEN: Susan MacManus, professor of Political Science at the University of South Florida, says after months of wall-to-wall negative ads, many voters are dazed and confused.

SUSAN MACMANUS: So if you're a, you know - a person that doesn't really follow politics 24-7, you're having a very difficult time figuring which of these is telling the truth. We have had more negative ads, longer. It's been almost nonstop.

ALLEN: Last week in their first debate, Scott and Crist laid out their positions on a series of issues. On many, there's a stark difference. On the 5-decade long Cuban embargo - a perennial Florida issue - Scott supports it, Crist wants to lift it. On gay marriage, Crist is for it, Scott opposes it and reminded debate viewers that not so long ago, Crist did also. Crist supported a state ban on same-sex marriage but later said that position was a mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: And Charlie said he took that position for political expediency. So my concern today is, what positions has he taken today for political expediency?

ALLEN: It's a charge that fires up Republicans, many of whom feel betrayed by Crist's switch in political parties. But it's also aimed at Independent voters, who may wonder after his political transformation what exactly Charlie Crist stands for. Crist's campaign hopes to win over Independents but is putting much of its focus on getting Democrats out to vote. Crist is one of the few Democrats running this election not distancing himself from President Obama. First lady Michelle Obama will be here later this week. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular