Florida Democrats Still Live in the Shadows of Claude Kirk and Ed Gurney’s Victories

When Claude Kirk passed away last year in Palm Beach aged 85, eulogies were forthcoming but most focused on the basics of Kirk’s existence: he was the first  post reconstruction GOP governor, lost re-election, switched parties, switched back, and was a colorful character. All of that is true, but what was missed is how his shadow has hung over the Florida Democratic Party for almost 50 years now.

Kirk shocked political observers by tapping into widespread discontent with the liberal direction of the national Democratic party with his huge 1966 Gubernatorial upset win. Anger about the 1964 Civil Rights Act still was prevalent and after Robert King High, a Miami liberal who supported Civil Rights upset incumbent Governor Haydon Burns in the primary, the die was cast. Kirk, running without a party infrastructure routed High in the General. Republicans which had already come to prominence in Pinellas, Orange, Broward and Palm Beach counties now were a statewide force.

Republicans surged in the Legislature and picked up seats in different portions of the state, taking a legislature that contained single digit Republicans at the turn of the decade into a potent minority force. These new Republicans took the state party into a hard right direction in sharp contrast to the old school Midwestern styled Republicans that had come from the urban areas south of Orlando. The next election cycle saw a shocker as Republican Ed Gurney, a reactionary conservative from Brevard County (which became Republican during the space program boom of the early 1960s) defeated former Governor Leroy Collins, the man whose leadership prevented Florida from becoming another Mississippi or Alabama. Florida is what it is today only because Collins’ opted for a moderate course during the 1950s in sharp contrast to other Southern governors.

Collins efforts to make Florida a modern state were used against him by Gurney and the Republicans. The son of a Tallahassee grocer was beat badly in rural areas by a Maine born, Harvard educated carpetbagger. The irony of ironies in an election where George Wallace carried 29% of the statewide vote carrying every county north of Gainesville, and in many of those counties Gurney won. Richard Nixon won Florida, just as he had in 1960, but this time the combined Wallace/Nixon (conservative) vote was close to 70% of Florida’s electorate.

One other southern state to elect a GOP governor in the 1960s was Virginia, who elected Linwood Holton. Holton was very different than Kirk in that he didn’t want to accept segregationist Democrats into his party and eventually was marginalized by a Virginia GOP that became a home for the Democratic architects of “massive resistance” to the Brown decision. Holton was a traditional Republican  which was rare in the south and now in his 80s, he strongly endorsed Barack Obama for President in 2008.

Florida’s Democrats reacted to the 1966 and 1968 elections by charting a decisively anti-national party course. Party elders adroitly positioned the party towards the right and pushed the Republicans towards the middle in many cases, with the Democrats occupying the conservative ground. Republican gains in the legislature were sharply reversed in the 1970s, with the Democrats regaining most conservative voters while the Republicans were reduced to strength in niche regions, such as southwest Florida, Brevard County, the Treasure Coast, Pinellas County and Orlando. Liberal Democrats remained strong in Miami, Hollywood (but not Fort Lauderdale which voted at the time like the Treasure Coast), Tampa, and Gainesville. The Democratic coalition of conservative North Florida voters and liberal urban voters reclaimed two dozen legislative seats, and won every Gubernatorial or US Senate election in the 1970s.

For many progressive reformers in 1970s and 1980s, the Democrats were worse than the Republicans when it came to state politics. We elected brilliant Governors in Reuben Askew and Bob Graham, but more often than not the State Senate and sometime the House was being run by Democrats who didn’t share the values of most progressives. The 1986 nomination of liberal State Rep. Steve Pajcic of Jacksonville led to a mass exodus of voters from the party and Republican Bob Martinez was elected in a landslide. Martinez boasted strong support in the conservative panhandle including from many elected Democrats in the area.

The experiences of the 1960s led the Democrats to wisely move to the right and force the GOP to the middle in many cases. But the 1986 Governor’s race drew conclusions for the Democrats that they are still working off of today, 25 years later in a dramatically different state.

A non-southern Democrat had not carried Florida in a Presidential contest since 1948, when Barack Obama won the state in 2008. In fact, even those who did carry the state struggled. In Lyndon Johnson’s national landslide of 1964, Florida was his seventh worst state and his worst outside the deep south and his opponents own home state of Arizona. Jimmy Carter’s 1976 performance was his third worst in a southern state. Bill Clinton lost Florida in 1992, a year when he carried Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia and barely lost North Carolina. In other words the Florida of 2008 was far different than the Florida of 1964, 1976 and 1992.

But for Florida’s Democrats assumptions about the electorate are still made based on the Kirk, Gurney and Martinez elections. Many Democrats have felt marrying the Eastern Panhandle/Big Bend region with southeast Florida can create an insurmountable coalition. It no longer can as the majority of the state’s population lives between Ocala and the Okeechobee Waterway (Caloosahatchee River and St Lucie River) on both coasts. Additionally, many Democrats spout conclusions about the electorate in central Florida which are dated. Orange County in 1994 had 15,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Today, the county has more than 75,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, with NPA voters quickly catching up to the GOP as well.

But assumptions are made about the electorate based on the areas that were Republican when Kirk, Gurney and more recently Paula Hawkins and Bob Martinez were elected. Incidentally, each of the aforementioned Republican statewide winners served just one term and the three that pursued a second term were routed. In the case of Hawkins, she used Reagan coattails and a strong showing in urban southeast Florida joined with her central Florida base to win a Senate seat in 1980. But a reflection of the Republican Party of Florida in that period is that Hawkins accumulated a voting record in the Senate just slightly to the right of Lawton Chiles and to the left of her predecessor Democrat Richard Stone. Considering she beat Conservative Democratic leader Bill Gunter in the General Election, chances are Hawkins was actually the more liberal of the two candidates.

Florida’s Democrats were smart to move to the right in the early 1970s pushing the Republicans to the middle. That’s where the state’s voters were, even Democratic voters. In the 1972 Florida Democratic Presidential Primary, George Wallace won 65 of Florida’s 67 counties losing only liberal Dade and college dominated Alachua. Florida’s Republicans at the time were County Club types, and carpetbaggers. But as carpetbaggers became more prevalent than native Floridians, and the demographics of the state changed, the state clearly became more liberal. Yet Florida’s Democrats couldn’t find their voice and suffered from mixed messages.

Even in the 1990’s Florida’s Republicans led by Tom Slade (who was elected to the State Senate in the Kirk landslide) were more pragmatic and less reactionary than national Republicans. The GOP married the disaffected conservatives who had been Democrats with the masses of less conservative voters in urban areas by advocating a positive policy agenda. The Democrats again scared of being labeled liberals offered little opposition.

After Obama’s 2008 victory which was based on the votes of Florida’s urban centers and suburban white voters, Florida’s Democrats should have finally found their progressive voice. Instead, the shadow of Kirk and other Republicans still hangs over the party. Rather than embracing the national Democrats agenda which has proven to be more popular in the state than anything the FDP has offered, the party continues to try and push a mushy moderate course that appeals to no one expect professional lobbyists and Government workers. Those motivated to vote in  the new Florida are either conservatives or liberals. The RPOF has cornered the market on the conservatives so the FDP must move left and embrace a progressive agenda as the successful national Democrats have done. The shadow of the late 60s still hangs over Florida’s Democrats.

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9 thoughts on “Florida Democrats Still Live in the Shadows of Claude Kirk and Ed Gurney’s Victories

  1. Good article. Excellent premise until you say the remedy is to go left. Historically accurate. Keep up these sorts of articles. Shows credibility & understanding other left wing democrats lack.

  2. I agree with you on the Progressive voice, unfortunately, I don’t think
    folks understand what that really is….if they did they would know
    Florida is going in the wrong direction….doesn’t anyone remember the policies of FDR and his stance on the banks…..

  3. Excellent history lesson that explains why our party thinks the way it does with misconceptions from the past.

  4. MacKay’s loss also had people claiming the party was too liberal. That’s how we got McBride, Davis and Sink.

  5. Lyndon Johnson was from Texas. You need to correct your statement that he was from Arizona. His Rebublican opponent, Barry Goldwater, was from Arizona. By the way, by today’s standards Goldwater would be classified as a liberal.

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