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‘Mind-bogglingly expensive’ race brews in Florida as former and current governors go head-to-head

August 27, 2014 at 6:33 PM EST
With a resounding Democratic primary victory and a critical party switch, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist moved a step closer to winning back his old job. His Republican challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, scored his own big win. The Sunshine State matchup is expected to be one of the most expensive and negative of the cycle. Adam Smith of The Tampa Bay Times joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the race.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Now to some domestic politics.

One of the most closely watched gubernatorial contests this fall will be in Florida, where current Republican Governor Rick Scott and Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist both scored big primary wins Tuesday night.

With his resounding primary victory and a critical party switch, Charlie Crist moved a step closer to winning back his old job.

CHARLIE CRIST: In 70 days, we want to make Florida Scott-free.

GWEN IFILL: That was a shot at current Republican Governor Rick Scott, who scored his own big primary win Tuesday.

GOV. RICK SCOTT, R-Fla.: I cleaned up Charlie Crist’s mess. He left me with a $3.6 billion budget deficit.

GWEN IFILL: For Crist, the Democratic primary win highlights one of the political world’s more remarkable transformations. In 2008, Crist, then the state’s Republican governor, campaigned for GOP presidential nominee John McCain, even making it onto the short-list of vice presidential prospects.

But his ties to the Grand Old Party started to fray in 2009, after he welcomed President Obama to the state a little too warmly. By 2010, he’d dropped the Republican label, running for the Senate as an independent. He ultimately lost to Republican Marco Rubio in the general election.

And, by 2012, the former Republican had become a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention that renominated President Obama. He officially became a Democrat later that year.

CHARLIE CRIST: I didn’t leave the Republican Party; it left me.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: Then, last year, Crist announced he would run for his old job as a member of his new party. With early polls showing a tight race, the matchup in the Sunshine State is expected to be one of the most expensive and negative of the cycle.

For more, we are joined by Adam Smith, political editor for The Tampa Bay Times.

Hi there, Adam.

So tell us the significance of this big whopping victory last night. It wasn’t just that he beat the primary opponent, but what it says for what happens next.

ADAM SMITH, Tampa Bay Times: Yes.

I think a lot of people are wondering Charlie Crist, lifelong Republican, can Democrats really get excited about him?  So, there was some concern from some of his allies that his underdog primary opponent could crack 30, 40 percent, and that would have been a sign of trouble.

GWEN IFILL: So — but we still don’t know for sure whether Democrats are excited, because we have another test coming up, and turnout has always been a problem.

ADAM SMITH: Yes, absolutely.

And, in fact, Democratic turnout in some of the big, big strongholds in Southeast Florida, Miami-Dade, Broward County, was very weak. Historically, in off-year elections, Republicans turn out 5, 6, 7 percent higher than Democrats. So, Charlie Crist has a lot of work to do to mobilize and energize Democrats in the state.

GWEN IFILL: We just gave a thumbnail sketch of the transformation that Governor, former Governor Crist had made in the past couple of years. And nobody has covered it more closely than you.

How much of a swing — he says the party left him — how much of a swing from the right to the left have we seen happen with Charlie Crist?

ADAM SMITH: It really is an only-in-Florida kind of story.

As governor, he really was a moderate governor, and moderate Republican. Part of the reason he got into so much trouble as the Tea Party rose was because he was reaching out pretty aggressively to Democrats. He was courting the teachers union. He was courting trial lawyers.

He was doing things on civil rights, so, you know, there are reasons that Democrats can get behind him. But then again, this is a guy that through most of his career has called himself a pro-life, pro-gun, Ronald Reagan Republican.

GWEN IFILL: So let’s talk about the other candidate who still is a pro-life, pro-gun, Ronald Reagan Republican. And that is Rick Scott, the current incumbent governor, who is very wealthy and has demonstrated he doesn’t mind spending money.

ADAM SMITH: Yes, he spent almost $80 million of his own money to get elected last time. And the poll numbers consistently show him as one of the very least popular governors in the country. So he should be very vulnerable.

But this going to be a mind-bogglingly expensive race.

GWEN IFILL: Well, he’s — if the polls show that he is not that popular, we still have what looks like a neck-and-neck race. What accounts for that?

ADAM SMITH: Well, we still — Florida is Florida, so it is going to always be tight in these races. And we have already seen Charlie Crist was up double digits about a year ago over Rick Scott. Rick Scott spent almost $30 million already on a lot of negative ads trashing Charlie Crist. Now it looks like a dead-heat race.

And I think you’re going to see an extremely negative campaign for the next 70 days.

GWEN IFILL: Can Charlie Crist match Rick Scott’s fund-raising capability, maybe from in state or out of state?

ADAM SMITH: No. You will see some — you are already seeing a fair amount of out-of-state money. There is a billionaire in California, environmentalist Tom Steyer, that is spending billions of dollars to help Charlie Crist.

But Democrats can never match Republicans in the state of Florida, and especially they can’t match a guy who at any day could write a $20 million, $30 million, $40 million check.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned in your coverage of last night’s election that it was significant that Charlie Crist spent his election night in Fort Lauderdale, not in Saint Petersburg, his hometown. Explain to the rest of the country why that makes a big difference.

ADAM SMITH: It’s interesting.

The rule of thumb has usually been where I am, the I-4 Corridor, is your sort of centrist — Central Florida swing vote area. And that is where elections traditionally are won or lost. And it seems as if the Crist campaign really has more of a really let’s jack up the base, let’s really target those infrequent voters that maybe don’t turn out routinely in off-year elections.

And so they’re looking heavily at Miami-Dade and South Florida for those Democratic voters that don’t usually turn out in non-presidential years.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds a little bit like what we saw happen in Mississippi with Thad Cochran going up after nontraditional voters.

But there is another person involved in this race. And that’s — who casts kind of a shadow, and that’s the president of the United States. They’re both in their way running with or against him.

ADAM SMITH: Yes.

Last time Rick Scott really ran, the nominee was Alex Sink, a chief financial officer. And Rick Scott really ran almost more against Obama and Obamacare than he did against Alex Sink.

This year, he hasn’t been running ads against Obama, but that’s clearly part of his thinking. And Charlie Crist, unlike Alex Sink, really is not distancing himself at all. I think he is an Obama person. He campaigned hard for Obama. He spoke at the convention.

And I think his calculation is, Obama’s approval ratings may be in the low 40s, but among those voters that he needs to get excited and he needs to turn out, the president is still very popular.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will all be watching.

Adam Smith, political editor for The Tampa Bay Times, thanks.

ADAM SMITH: Thank you.