Rick Scott couldn’t do much worse among black voters than in 2010, when only 6 percent backed him for governor.
Or could he? African-American leaders outraged by the not-guilty verdict in the death of teenager Trayvon Martin are assailing Scott for supporting the “Stand Your Ground” law that arguably helped Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, go free. Students protesters are camping out in the governor’s office, musician Stevie Wonder has announced a boycott and Attorney General Eric Holder denounced the law at the NAACP convention in Orlando earlier this week.
If black voters turn out in force against Scott in 2014, they could swing a race as close as his last, which he won by only 61,550 votes. Black voters comprised between 11 percent and 14 percent of the vote in recent gubernatorial elections, and their share of the electorate is on the rise. Racial and ethnic conflicts, such as the bitter debate in 2000 over custody of Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez, have a history of shaping elections in the nation’s largest swing state.
“Stand Your Ground is becoming a rallying cry against Rick Scott in the minority community,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, who led a task force that examined the law and pushed for changes. “It’s another reason for the minority community to stay active, and we’re talking about a governor’s race that will be close and won at the margins.”
Scott’s likely Democratic opponents on Thursday joined the criticism of his leadership after the racially polarizing trial. “I'm troubled that we don't have a governor that can bring people together after such an emotional and personal public debate,” said Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who switched parties and is expected to challenge Scott. "No law is perfect, and it seems to me that Trayvon's tragic death provides an opportunity for a real dialogue on how we can improve our laws to ensure that we are protecting self-defense while not creating a defense for criminals.”
Democratic Sen. Nan Rich, who’s struggling to gain traction in the polls after running against Scott for more than one year, mocked him for being out of town during the sit-in in his office, though he returned to Tallahassee late Thursday and met with protesters. “I think he’s afraid to come back,” Rich quipped. “Leadership is lacking, and we need leadership from the governor to change this law.”
Alex Sink, the state’s former chief financial officer who narrowly lost to Scott in 2010 and is considering a rematch, called him “incompetent” for waiting two days before meeting with the protestors. “He’s not equipped to be governor,” she said. She also thinks the Stand Your Ground law should be re-examined.
That line of attack comes with risks. A Quinnipiac University poll earlier this year found 57 percent of Florida voters support the law that says a person may use deadly force if they believe their life is in danger. Crist, a longtime gun-rights supporter, endorsed the law as the state attorney general when it was signed in 2005 by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. Rich and other Senate Democrats voted for the law, though she now thinks it should be amended. She noted that the defense didn’t argue the law in the case, but it affected the instructions given to the jury.
Scott has called Martin’s death a “terrible tragedy” but has ignored calls for a special legislative session to revise the law. On Friday, he issued a proclamation for a "statewide day of prayer for unity" on Sunday. "Emotions are running high as we continue to grieve the loss of Trayvon and the toll that the tragic events surrounding his death have taken on the community of Sanford, Florida, and other communities across our state," reads the proclamation.
But even the Republican lawmaker who sponsored the law, Rep. Dennis Baxley, is concerned about political repercussions. “People are looking to 2014 and need a banner to run on, and this could be it,” he said. “They’re not going to have Barack Obama on the ballot to excite the people with his charisma, so they’re going to fan the flames and make this an issue that is going to be motivational for turnout.”
Other Republican leaders were skeptical that the controversy would last but were wary of saying something that would seem insensitive to the black teenager’s death.
“I think this issue is going to be dicey for political candidates because voters could turn against them,” said Democratic fundraiser John Morgan, Crist’s close ally and law partner. “White voters see it as having a right to protect our neighborhoods and black voters see it as a license to kill. No one wants to get past the bumper stickers.”
The Quinnipiac University poll that included the Stand Your Ground law found a stark racial divide, with 62 percent of white voters in support and 61 percent of black voters opposed. Zimmerman, a neighborhood crime-watch volunteer in the town of Sanford, said he shot Martin in self-defense after the teenager beat him up. Martin was unarmed. A jury on Saturday acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder, sparking non-violent protests around the state.
The last Republican candidate to do as poorly as Scott in the black community was former Gov. Bush, who was asked during his unsuccessful 1994 campaign what he would do for black voters. “Probably nothing,” he said, and he received only 4 percent of the vote. Bush helped repair his image in the black community by starting an inner-city charter school and won 14 percent of the vote in his successful 1998 bid.
The high-water mark for a Republican candidate in Florida was likely set by Crist, who received 18 percent of the black vote in his 2006 campaign for governor. He received high marks from African-American leaders for helping felons get their voting rights restored and extending early voting hours in President Obama’s 2008 election, but his political career was cut short when Republican Marco Rubio trounced him in the 2010 Senate race.
“It’s hard to say what the Trayvon Martin trial will mean in 14 or 15 months and where it lands in the overall dialogue of the campaign,” said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who helped Obama carry the state in 2008 and 2012. “It’s not the kind of issue you can run a campaign on, but it’s an emotional issue for everyone involved.”
The June poll by Quinnipiac University pegged Scott's approval at 43 percent, a high point since his election, though he was trailing Crist by 10 points in a potential matchup.