Florida Republicans poised to extend dominance for foreseeable future
This past Friday marked the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Republican takeover of the Florida House of Representatives, an accomplishment that gave the GOP complete control of the legislature for the first time in 122 years. Then-State Representative Dan Webster (now serving in Congress, and pictured above with then-State Rep. John Thrasher) led the Republican charge in the House. Webster ultimately won the race to become the first Republican Speaker of the House since 1874.
Control over the Florida Senate had also shifted to the GOP, and two years later, Jeb Bush would deliver the Republican trifecta by winning the governor’s mansion, solidifying control of Florida’s state government.
The Sunshine State has remained in Republican control ever since – well, that is, depending on how one categorizes the tumultuous year of 2010, under the leadership of Governor Charlie Crist, whose flip-flopping transformation from Republican-turned-Independent-turned Democrat still has people trying to figure him out.
But the groundwork to win in 1996 didn’t happen in a single election cycle. The Republican Party of Florida had worked for decades to lay the groundwork necessary for success. Twenty years earlier, in the early 1970’s, around the time Democrat Bill Nelson was just beginning his political career, Democrats enjoyed a whopping voter registration advantage of around 1.5 million more voters than Republicans.
Sometime around 1978, though, Republicans started kicking their own voter registration program into high gear, making noticeable inroads against the Democrats that would continue in Florida with the help of Ronald Reagan’s brand appeal. That trend continued through the early Clinton years, when Democrats started losing ground to independents while Republicans kept up the pressure.
This chart shows how Republicans and independent voters have slowly squeezed Democrats over the last 35 years:
This month, Republican voter registrations are projected to surpass that of Democrats, cementing GOP political dominance. The development didn’t escape the notice of Gov. Ron DeSantis this week.
“Today, and it’ll probably be fully publicized very soon,” DeSantis said Friday, while referencing internal RPOF data, “today for the first time in the history of Florida we’ve now overtaken Democrats.”
Republicans who’ve worked in Florida over the last 50 years all deserve a share of the credit. But it would be wrong for Republicans to just slap themselves on the back without sharing some of the credit for GOP success with Florida Democrats. After all, Florida Democrats have worked just as hard as Republicans to ensure lasting GOP dominance.
Environmental activist reporter and all-around funnyman Craig Pittman accidentally tells us how Democrats did it
He didn’t mean to. He really didn’t. He was trying to whack current Republican lawmakers for not caring about the environment. But after wading through the first 417 words of his rambling dissertation on state birds and pies and animals, readers of Pittman’s most recent column will finally arrive at an unintentional post-mortem analysis on how the Florida Democratic Party hobbled itself over the last half-century.
Reading a Pittman column is like being stuck behind a Lincoln Continental driving through the Villages with its blinker on. You know he’s probably gonna make a hard left turn, but in the meantime, he’s driving way too slow and lurching all over the road. Eventually, he does reach his destination: in this case, his claim that the Bert Harris Act, passed by the Democratic-controlled state legislature in 1995, is largely to “blame” for Florida’s explosive growth and development over the last 25 years. As if growth and economic development were a bad thing.
Ignoring Pittman’s environmental complaints for a moment, the act was passed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers the year before Democrats lost control of the Florida House. The Bert Harris Act was intended to protect property owners from overzealous politicians and bureaucrats who, prior to the act’s passage, could essentially destroy the value of private property by blocking development in the name of environmental protection or any other whim the government cooked up.
It’s pure coincidence that Pittman chose the 1995-era legislation as the focus of his column this week. Reading his litany of complaints is an excellent primer on the attitudes of many Democrats of that era. His column provides an example of legislation that gained steam because of the electoral shift that had already started to occur at the end of the Florida Democratic Party’s 122-year reign of power. Voters were fed up with Democrat failures on a number of fronts, including their prioritization of niche environmental concerns over the rights of property owners. The willingness of Democrats to pass the Bert Harris Act came far too late to assuage voter concerns, and a year later, Democrats were brushed aside in favor of new leadership with an eye toward economic growth.
In the last 25 years, Florida become the third largest state in the country, surpassing New York. We went from 15 million people to 21 million over that span. And we’re headed for a population of 30 million within the next decade. Regardless of the political party in power, lawmakers and governors will always need to find ways to prioritize the needs and rights of its citizens, and that includes environmental protections that don’t choke the economy.