The 1970s were a glory era in Florida politics as the fast growing state became the envy of the sunbelt with a smart progressive leadership under Governors Reuben Askew, and Bob Graham as well as a proactive cabinet and cooperative House of Representatives. Government in the Sunshine and other progressive reforms were the handiwork of enlightened and talented Democrats who hold no equal in today’s Florida. But they were also made possible by Republicans whose independence and understanding of Florida made them valuable allies for Askew, Graham and others in the fight against an obstructionist State Senate and other conservatives.
House Minority Leader Don Reed statesmanlike in his approach and willingness to work with Democratic leaders of different stripes on issues like Tax Reform, Government Reform, Environmental Protection, Judicial Reform and Growth Management. In fact, with political corruption at record levels, the traditional Florida GOP was part of the solution working with good government Democrats to solve the problem and pass new laws that safeguarded public funds and the public trust. This was the case at both the state and local levels. With liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans a governing coalition emerged that saw state and local Government as a means to combat Florida’s problems.
Unfortunately, “Operation Switchover” which was part of Nixon’s Southern Strategy began the long process of transitioning the reactionary elements of Florida’s Democratic Party into becoming Republicans, where they would eventually dominate the party. Prior to the mid 1970s, the Florida GOP was a moderate party made up largely of transplants from the Midwest and Northeast. The party was especially strong in Orange, Pinellas, Broward and Palm Beach counties. The Democrats were divided between conservative and liberal wings (with very few moderates) and in the late 1960s and early 1970s the liberal wing, dominated by urban Miami had come to gain control of party primaries for statewide office and much of the party apparatus. The 1970s were the greatest era in Florida Government precisely because neither party was run by conservatives and the needs of the state associated with growth were being confronted aggressively and proactively.
Throughout the 1970s, moderate Republicans continued to be a force in the state. The moderates hailed from what was becoming known as the “Republican Horseshoe” an area running from Naples through Pinellas County, around I-4 (Hillsborough and Polk Counties were still reliably Democratic) up into Lake, Orange and Seminole Counties, and then back down the east coast beginning in Brevard through the coastal areas of Palm Beach and Broward Counties. These counties provided the bulwark of President Gerald Ford’s victory in the 1976 Florida Primary over conservative Ronald Reagan. Many observers pointed to Florida as the reason Ford held on against the organized conservative tide that backed Reagan and swept the Southeast (with the notable exception of Mississippi where future RNC Chair and Governor Haley Barbour held the state for Ford thanks to the fact their were so few registered Republicans at the time.)
At the local level, Republicans were responsible in many areas for slow growth ordinances and strong environmental laws. Republican leaders in counties such as Martin and Collier emphasized quality of life issues such as air and water quality in order to fuel economic growth and spur new businesses. A culuture of innovation and promotion of small business also grew out of this period, with Republicans promoting and protecting ma and pa shoppes and start-ups in contrast to today’s Florida GOP who is centered around protecting big business.
As the 1980s approached the GOP was growing in Florida, but it’s makeup while changing hadn’t become completely radicalized. That transformation would take place in the 1990s, and era which was still off in the distant future.