The 1980s brought us the Reagan Revolution which fundamentally changed the Republican Party on a national level. This development certainly moved Florida’s GOP to the right, but on the whole Florida’s Republicans were still more moderate than the national party. Reagan romped to victory in Florida, while struggling to win many Deep South states with large black populations and regional loyalty to Jimmy Carter. Regional loyalty to Carter was still apparent in between the Apalachicola and Suwanee Rivers where the Democrats carried every county. But Reagan carried every Metropolitan county in the state and won by 17%, compared with close shave wins in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina as well as defeat in Georgia.
Reagan’s Florida victory margin owed itself to the continued moderate Republicanism that had become a governing philosophy in places like Pinellas, Broward, Palm Beach and Orange Counties. By the end of Reagan’s term, Broward and Palm Beach were trending heavily Democratic and Pinellas was beginning to shift. Orange’s shift would occur after 1995, when the GOP had become truly marginalized for urban areas.
The Republican Revolution of 1980 was the first wave of dim lights being elected to Congress. The once collegial US Senate became a partisan battlefield after the GOP took the majority and the House was filled with ideologically driven, anti-government members. This occurrence would repeat itself in 1994 and 2010 when similar striped Republicans would dominate the national election.
Florida elected perhaps the least intellectually capable Senator, Paul Hawkins who rode in on the coattails of Ronald Reagan. Insurance Commissioner Bill Gunter, the Democratic nominee (who had avenged a 1974 primary loss by defeating Conservative Democrat Senator Richard Stone in the primary) ran nine points ahead of Jimmy Carter yet still lost. Hawkins was lost in the Senate, but she proved to be a moderate vote, compiling a record arguably to the left of what Stone had recorded.
In the Fort Lauderdale based 12th Congressional district, E. Clay Shaw defeated Democratic incumbent Ed Stack soley on coattails. Shaw would prove to be a traditional Republican, conservative on most issues but flexible and moderate on perhaps the most important economic issues. Shaw’s record was impressive and it would be twenty-six years before the Democrats beat him in an area that began trending decisively towards the Ds in the late 1980s.
The 1980s saw Republican state legislators continue to work with the Democratic administration on important issues such as growth management, environmental protection and infrastructure development. The Senate was by this time squarely in the conservative hands of Dempsey Barron and his allies. This meant on many (but not all) issues, Governor Bob Graham had work around Barron. In many cases his support came from Republicans.
Several party switches would move the Florida GOP towards the right during the decade. Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez became a Republican in 1983, and by 1986 was the party’s nominee for Governor. Congressman Andy Ireland switched parties around the same time. Dempsey Barron himself switched parties after losing a Democratic Primary in 1988 to future party switcher Vince Bruner. Congressman Bill Grant switched parties in 1989 and was promptly routed for re-election in the Tallahassee based 2nd district by Democrat Pete Peterson.
The Martinez candidacy would prove to be a watershed moment as conservative Democrats began flocking to the GOP en masse in the state, forever changing the complexion of the Florida GOP. Conservatives had largely backed Attorney General Jim Smith for Governor. Smith had lost a hotly contested Democratic runoff to liberal State Representative Stave Pajcic of Jacksonville. Pajcic won 51%-49% by combining a victory in Duval, his home county to overwhelming support in the three urban southeast Florida counties. Smith largely carried rural areas and much of Central Florida which at the time was not as strong a voting block in Democratic Primaries as it is today.
Smith had thought about switching parties before the election and running as a Republican. He would do so after Martinez was elected after backing him in the General. Martinez’s landslide victory owed itself to Democrats like Smith and Barron who openly campaigned for the former Tampa Mayor against Pajcic. In time, this would quickly transition the Republicans into a conservative party and leave the Democrats dominated by their liberal wing that had nominated Pajcic.
The overall character of the GOP changed forever in Florida. We still had moderate Republicans, but the party itself was positioned clearly to the right and fewer and fewer Republicans were willing to work across the aisle to support progressive reforms.