Since the election of Jeb Bush as Florida Governor in 1998, the Democratic Party has been trying to figure out how to capture the Governor’s Mansion. Many political consultants have come up with different ways to accomplish this goal. But even so, those at the top have been convinced of one thing…Democrats must nominate a moderate candidate to lead their ticket.
While their consensus might have held some validity, as late as even 2006 with the election of moderate Republican Charlie Crist, it eventually came crashing down in 2010 with the election of Rick Scott. Scott wore his right-wing philosophy like a badge of honor. He was so far out of touch with the Florida people that every major Florida newspaper endorsed Alex Sink, his Democratic opponent.
Going with traditional logic (and not necessarily the correct logic), Democrats nominated a pro-business, moderate southern native in Alex Sink. While her primary opponent wasn’t exactly hard to beat (former Socialist Party candidate for President Brian Moore) , no other Democrat challenged her for this position.
So the stage was set…right-winger Rick Scott running against the moderate Alex Sink. This is the match-up that the Democrats have been waiting for! Their ideal candidate running against the worst possible candidate for the GOP. And, of course, we all know happened. And for those of you that don’t, Rick Scott won.
In the 2010 Election, the Democrats finally ran the Democratic political consultant strategy, and it fell flat on its face! The moderate didn’t win. The right-winger won, and Florida is worse off for it.
The whole idea of getting Sink was that many thought she would win both the moderate vote and the some counties in north Florida. But the pure fact was that nobody knew anything about her, expect for being the state’s current CFO. During television appearances, she looked both stiff and lacking enthusiasm. At this point, her moderate views on the issues didn’t play any real part. And while she did win the moderate vote, according to the CNN exit poll, by a margin of 23%, liberals weren’t motivated to vote, and didn’t show up to the polls.
So yes, Sink did win the moderate vote, exactly what the political consultants said she needed to do, by a very large margin as well. But did it help? Not in the slightest.
Now let’s turn back the clock 40 years. In 1970, busing was a big issue. North Florida, who supported George Wallace in large numbers in the 1968 Presidential Election, was still a main driving force in Florida politics. Earl Faircloth, a conservative and current Attorney General of Florida, was poised to take the Democratic Party nomination for the 1970 gubernatorial election. Even with the party being fractured between liberals and conservatives, Faircloth didn’t take his Democratic primary opponents too seriously.
One of those opponents was State Senator Reubin Askew. Unlike Faircloth, Reubin took a liberal stance on many issues. He spoke of racial equality. The only reason that he personally opposed busing was because he thought that more should be done for racial equality, and busing wasn’t the answer. He supported increasing taxes on corporations. He supported stronger environmental standards. He also supported transparency in government and limits on campaign contributions. He also thought that government should be used to help the people. He was a true liberal candidate, for the 1970s.
So, using current Democratic political logic, Faircloth should have been the nominee, right? Nope, Askew won the Democratic runoff with 58% of the vote, winning in almost every part of the state. He would go on to defeat Governor Claude Kirk with 57% of the vote. U.S. Senate candidate Lawton Chiles nearly followed the exact same path. While not as liberal as Askew, he was much more liberal than the Florida Democratic Party had ever seen before. Chiles would win the Democratic Primary runoff against former conservative, pro-segregationist Florida Governor Farris Bryant. In the general, Chiles defeated Bill Cramer (who I consider the “Father of Florida Republican Politics”) by 8%. And remember, during this time, north Florida and its conservatives were still a large voting block in the Democratic primary.
The reasons why these two candidates won was mostly because of their personality. While many Floridians didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with these two candidates, they did like their personality and their populist-style campaign. But what is even more important is the way their “down-home look” shaped their politics. Askew, who is a devout Presbyterian, said that his religion, along with his family, shaped his political views which promoted that government should be there to help the people.
As governor, Askew passed a number of progressive reforms. Askew even took George Wallace on head-to-head with the busing issue. Basically, if current Democratic strategists were advising Askew, they would tell him to take the middle road and be more conservative. Instead, he took his own road and became one of Florida’s most, if not the most, progressive governor. True, he did support conservative values like the death penalty, but this was during a time when even liberals were for capital punishment.
So, walking this liberal line, one would assume in the still-conservative State of Florida that Askew would do the noble thing, be a liberal, and then fall on his sword in the 1974 Governor’s race. But no, he beat Democrat-turned-Republican former State Senate President Jerry Thomas with 61% of the votes. Askew was able to take his personality, as well as his liberal stances, and turn them into an electoral landslide.
But as University of Florida History Professor David Colburn states in his book “From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans”, whenever Thomas tried to use the “liberal” label on Askew, it didn’t work:
“Thomas’s accusations that Askew was a liberal Democrat, however, boomeranged on him. The governor’s popularity and support for his programs transcended Thomas’s accusation.”
– From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans, John Colburn, p. 97
So, in a time when Florida was much more conservative than it is now, the Democrats went with a liberal candidate. True, he was moderate on some issues, but what Askew did during that time was both bold and risky. The risk paid off.
I ask the Democratic Party “where are the Reubin Askews at nowadays”? True, the Democrats still need to build state leaders. But with a state that is much more progressive than it was back in the early 1970s, why are we going backward. Instead of moving toward to right, Askew showed that moving toward the left can bring large electoral success. Still, personality is important, and might be the largest contributing factor to Askew’s win. But even with personality or not, Askew’s progressive ideas changed Florida for the good, only to see our current Republicans trying to destroy his legacy.
The Democrats need to find their next Askew. But, also, they need to proudly support their progressive ideas, much like Reubin did.