Charlie Crist, the former Florida governor and a former Republican, is hoping to win another term after switching parties. The incumbent, Gov. Rick Scott, has switched his campaign emphasis from conservative tax cuts to spending more on programs like education. Special correspondent Steve Mort reports on how voters are reacting to both candidates.
We turn now to the midterm elections and the campaign that could wind up being the most expensive in the country, the Florida governor's race.
It's already one of the most complicated. Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor, is now running as a Democrat and trying to defeat incumbent Rick Scott, a Tea Party-backed Republican.
Tonight's story was produced in collaboration with WUCF Orlando. The reporter is Steve Mort.
At a campaign stop at an Orlando barbecue restaurant, Democratic candidate Charlie Crist looked hungry for support in the race for Florida governor.
CHARLIE CRIST, Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate:
This is great.
It was a typical campaign stop, complete with signs, hobnobbing local politicians and plenty of Southern hospitality, but all for a candidate who is far from typical.
Just four years ago, Crist served as the state's Republican governor. Now he's trying to pull off something that's never been done before in Florida history, serve another term as governor after switching parties. Crist left the GOP after losing a primary battle for the U.S. Senate to Marco Rubio in 2010. It was the Tea Party that launched Rubio into office, and it's the Tea Party Crist blames for what he sees as the decline of the once Grand Old Party.
The Republican Party in America has changed dramatically over the past four or five years. The Tea Party advent really brought about a hard right shift to the party. And Jeb Bush, my predecessor, said it better than I can. He said, today's Republican Party is perceived to be, if not actually, anti-women, anti-minority, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-education, anti-environment. I mean, the list goes on and on.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
The Tea Party also helped propel Republican Governor Rick Scott to victory in 2010 in a state which President Obama won twice. Scott campaigned on a platform of smaller government and tax cuts. But, this time around, he's switched the emphasis to how his administration is spending more.
GOV. RICK SCOTT, (R) Florida: We have the highest education funding in the history of the state. We have stopped Charlie Crist's 15 percent year-after-year tuition increase. You know, we have a program in the state where you can buy a prepaid plan for a newborn. It went from like $100 a month to $300 a month under Charlie. We have cut that price in half from its high. So that's what this election is about.
Both Charlie Crist and Rick Scott have faced criticism for flip-flopping on key issues in an effort to win voter approval. Rick Scott has been attacked by some in the Tea Party, who say he's moved to the center on issues such as education and Medicaid expansion.
AUBREY JEWETT, University of Central Florida: He has had a total image makeover and policy makeover over the last couple of years.
Aubrey Jewett is a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
When he got into office, his approval ratings were the lowest in the country at one point. It was about 28 percent, and so I think he realized and his team realized, hey, if we really want to have a shot at getting reelected, we have to try something different, and so they began to try to become more moderate at least on some policy issues.
Everett Wilkinson is both a state and national leader in the Tea Party movement. He's sharply critical of Scott's move to the center
EVERETT WILKINSON, South Florida Tea Party:
He's had some substantial increases in the budget, and his support of the Medicaid expansion and some other critical issues, I think, have caused many of us pause and reservation on the Tea Party.
But Wilkinson says he will vote for Rick Scott anyway, because he views Charlie Crist as a political opportunist. Aubrey Jewett says many Democrats share that concern too.
Even in the Democratic base, there's some worry that they are trying to elect as a Democrat someone who just three years ago said, I'm pro-life, I'm pro-family, I'm pro-gun, I'm pro-business, I'm a conservative Reagan Republican. What else do you want from me, Republicans?
But lifelong Democrat Geraldine Thompson, a state lawmaker who worked with Republican Crist on voting expansion and education bills, says she is convinced his values haven't changed.
GERALDINE THOMPSON, (D) Florida State Senator: Regardless of whether he's had an R or a D behind his name, his behavior has demonstrated that he is in touch with the people and he's someone who cares about people. And that's why I'm supporting Charlie Crist.
While both candidates are out shaking hands at local restaurants and forums, the big money campaign is being waged on television. The election is expected to be one of the most expensive and nastiest races in the country. Already, more than $40 million has been spent by the candidates and outside interest groups. And that number is expected to climb to $150 million.
So far, the Scott side is outspending Crist 3-1. Even though polls show a tight race, Scott has seen his numbers improve since he began the ad campaign. The pro-Scott ads beat up on Crist for plunging the state into an economic crisis during his tenure as governor.
The numbers tell the story. Florida's unemployment tripled, 800,000 jobs gone, property values down. Which governor took Florida to the bottom? Charlie Crist. What's worse, he didn't stay to fix the mess. He ran away.
For his part, Crist tries to remind voters of the scandal that surrounded Scott's tenure as head of the hospital group Columbia/HCA, which was fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud.
In every job he's ever had, Rick Scott has ducked the truth. While his company was committing Medicare fraud…
GOV. RICK SCOTT:
I don't recall.
… he pled the Fifth 75 times and wouldn't even confirm his signature.
It looks like my signature, but — what's your question?
Rick Scott, just too shady for the Sunshine State.
On the campaign trail, they have equally harsh words about the other.
Charlie Crist is a slick politician, a smooth talker and puts more time into his tan than I do.
I think half the reason our opponent runs almost nothing but negative ads is to try to suppress the vote, because that's what Rick Scott does.
And both are making a big play for the rapidly growing and influential Latino vote. Nearly a quarter of Florida's population is Hispanic or Latino, and Latinos make up nearly 14 percent of the state's registered voters. Traditionally, Cuban Americans have voted for Republicans, while other Latino groups have voted Democratic.
Political analysts say those divisions are starting to soften, although they still held true for voters we talked to.
VIVIAN RODRIGUEZ, Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida: It's going to be observing Hispanic Heritage Month.
Vivian Rodriguez, of Puerto Rican descent, is the president of the Florida Democratic Party's Hispanic Caucus. She says Crist is the best choice for Latinos since he supports comprehensive immigration reform, expanding Medicaid and increased education funding.
Charlie Crist is 100 percent on board in putting forward programs that would add money to these programs. When we look at sick pay and labor union rights and rights for the working class, these are all interests for the Hispanic community.
Berta Bravo came to this country from Cuba when she was a small child. She now owns a small business that sells high-end versions of the traditional Cuban guayabera shirt.
BERTA BRAVO, Small Business Owner:
It originated in my hometown in the late 1800s.
She recently held a campaign event for Rick Scott at her store because she says she believes he's been good for Florida businesses.
Over the last four years, my business has grown. I acquired a business partner. I hired two more people. You see the growth, especially the past two years. Business has been much better than before.
Although turnout in a midterm election is typically low, a medical marijuana initiative could spur increased participation from both supporters and opponents. One thing's for sure. Neither side is taking any voting group for granted, with Florida once again living up to its reputation as the nation's largest swing state.
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