Can Florida State Politics Cost the GOP the White House?

Florida is a must-win for the GOP in 2016. But can the state party get its act together in time to help?

This image can only be used with the Scott Bland piece that originally ran in the 6/27/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Scott laughs with former Florida governor Jeb Bush during an airport rally in Orlando, Florida, Saturday, October 30, 2010. Scott is blitzing the state with stops in Orlando, Jacksonville, Winter Park, Hialeah, and Tampa, Saturday.
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Scott Bland
June 26, 2015, 1 a.m.

One of Blaise In­goglia’s first moves as chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Flor­ida was to shut it down.

He blocked ac­cess to the party’s headquar­ters build­ing and sus­pen­ded all fin­an­cial activ­ity in a scramble to take charge. But by that point, $1.4 mil­lion had already been shif­ted by Gov. Rick Scott and Re­pub­lic­ans in the state Sen­ate to sep­ar­ate polit­ic­al com­mit­tees un­der their con­trol. They said the raid, which came just hours be­fore In­goglia’s elec­tion, was due to un­cer­tainty about the party’s fu­ture. “At the end of the day,” says state Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Andy Gardiner, “we moved the money for Sen­ate cam­paigns un­til we knew the fu­ture of the party.”

Yet now, lead­er­ship clearly in place and “un­cer­tainty” gone, the money re­mains out­side the grasp of the state’s Re­pub­lic­an Party. And while In­goglia in­sists party busi­ness is back to nor­mal and touts his re­la­tion­ships with Scott and Gardiner, signs of strain among state Re­pub­lic­ans are un­mis­tak­able and per­sist­ent.

That starts with Scott. While most gov­ernors are in­tim­ately in­volved in their party or­gan­iz­a­tions, Scott has largely fo­cused on his own per­son­al polit­ic­al com­mit­tee, Let’s Get to Work, giv­ing rise to fin­an­cial con­cerns about the state party. When Scott re­cently lured sev­en Re­pub­lic­an White House hope­fuls to Or­lando for a cattle call, the state party was ex­cluded from the po­ten­tially luc­rat­ive fun­drais­ing op­por­tun­ity. In­deed, the can­did­ates spoke on stage at Walt Dis­ney World from a po­di­um em­blazoned with Scott’s name, be­fore a back­drop tout­ing Scott’s com­mit­tee.

(RE­LATED: Will Re­pub­lic­ans Break Their Pat­tern?)

“Who ever heard of such a thing?” asked one prom­in­ent state Re­pub­lic­an. “Who’s ever heard of pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates com­ing to a state for the gov­ernor and hav­ing noth­ing to do with the party?”

“This gov­ernor is act­ing very dif­fer­ently to­ward the party than former gov­ernors have,” said Paula Dock­ery, a former Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­or who is now a syn­dic­ated colum­nist. “Even when [Scott] con­trolled it more, he still wanted his own polit­ic­al com­mit­tee and seems like he wanted it to be in even bet­ter stand­ing than the party.”

Frosty re­la­tion­ships and Byz­antine turf wars are noth­ing new to polit­ics in any state, es­pe­cially when one party dom­in­ates, the way Re­pub­lic­ans have in Flor­ida. But with a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion 17 months away, many Re­pub­lic­ans are wor­ried that the party’s trouble with state lead­ers could do more than fray nerves — it could ul­ti­mately deny the GOP’s even­tu­al nom­in­ee Flor­ida’s 29 elect­or­al votes.

In 2016, Flor­ida is a must-win for the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee if the GOP in­tends to re­take the White House. And after watch­ing the Obama cam­paign out-or­gan­ize and out-man­euver them for sev­er­al years lead­ing up to the 2012 elec­tion, state Re­pub­lic­ans from In­goglia on down want to get an early start lay­ing ground­work for their nom­in­ee’s cam­paign to take over and ex­ploit.

But time is run­ning out. “We’re prob­ably six months be­hind sched­ule,” said one state Re­pub­lic­an in May. “Es­pe­cially com­pared to what Obama was do­ing in 2011,” when his team was already build­ing a massive vo­lun­teer base more than a year be­fore the elec­tion.

When it comes to loc­al polit­ics, Flor­ida looks less like a fam­ous battle­ground state than it does a pen­in­su­lar ex­ten­sion of the Deep South. In fact, only two Demo­crats have man­aged to win statewide of­fice in the 21st cen­tury.

(RE­LATED: In Flor­ida, Re­pub­lic­ans Are Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity’s Top Tar­get)

Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­ans have con­trolled the le­gis­lature un­in­ter­rup­ted since 1997. And since 1994, when Jeb Bush nar­rowly lost his first run for gov­ernor, the GOP has won every single gubernat­ori­al elec­tion — a level of Re­pub­lic­an dom­in­ance sur­passed only in deeply con­ser­vat­ive states such as Idaho, the Dakotas, Texas, and Utah.

But when pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates come to the state, Flor­ida’s com­pet­it­ive nature breaks through. In the last six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans have split their wins — three to three. In the last of those elec­tions, Re­pub­lic­ans first mocked and then watched sul­lenly as Obama’s cam­paign built, over the course of sev­er­al years, an enorm­ous vo­lun­teer-driv­en field pro­gram that boos­ted him to a one-point vic­tory.

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney in 2011 at the Fox News/Google GOP Debate in Orlando, Florida. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images) Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Rom­ney cam­paign, which spent the bet­ter part of 2011 and 2012 con­cerned with primary polit­ics, was quite simply less pre­pared, and state Re­pub­lic­ans are de­term­ined to not let it hap­pen again. “I per­son­ally have spent a lot of time re­view­ing a lot of doc­u­ments and pa­pers on what the Obama cam­paign did and how they ex­ecuted,” In­goglia says. “I’m not one to sit back and wait for someone else to come up with solu­tions, but in­stead take the bull by horns. I ran for chair­man on a plat­form of do­ing some of those things.”

That’s the im­petus for “Pro­ject 29,” In­goglia’s ini­ti­at­ive, an­nounced in mid-May, to prep Flor­ida to go red long be­fore Re­pub­lic­ans choose their pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee. The pro­ject, ac­cord­ing to In­goglia, has three parts: en­ga­ging vo­lun­teers and dif­fer­ent demo­graph­ic com­munit­ies early, ag­gress­ive di­git­al out­reach, and ac­quir­ing data and new tech­no­logy to make the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign more ef­fi­cient and ef­fect­ive in the state. (In­goglia re­fused to elab­or­ate on the party’s data work, call­ing it “pro­pri­et­ary.”)

But the tur­moil this year has cre­ated enough trep­id­a­tion that some Re­pub­lic­ans are look­ing out­side the party for a way to set the stage for their 2016 nom­in­ee. Mul­tiple sources con­firmed pre­lim­in­ary dis­cus­sions by some well-fun­ded GOP busi­ness groups and in­terest groups to set up a new ef­fort to gath­er data, or­gan­ize vo­lun­teers, and con­duct de­tailed re­search on Flor­ida voters start­ing this year to max­im­ize the party’s odds of win­ning the pres­id­ency.

“There’s so much im­port­ant data to be gathered “¦ that any group that’s ser­i­ous about turnout in Novem­ber 2016 needs to be act­ive and ready to go in fall 2015, lead­ing up to the pres­id­en­tial primary,” one source says. “You can’t wait un­til after the primary or near the con­ven­tion to be­gin a ser­i­ous op­er­a­tion in a state that’s go­ing to have 9 mil­lion votes cast.”

In­goglia dis­misses both talk of in­tra­party fric­tion and this ex­tra-party ef­fort, in­sist­ing his op­er­a­tion will be able to set the table for the nom­in­ee. “Noth­ing’s go­ing to get us side­tracked. We un­der­stand the task at hand, and we’ll de­liv­er the state,” In­goglia says. “At the end of the day, noth­ing’s go­ing to be as power­ful as RPOF [Re­pub­lic­an Party of Flor­ida] be­cause we have the in­fra­struc­ture already in place — data, di­git­al, grass­roots — and his­tory has proven that a strong RPOF can de­liv­er for the nom­in­ee.”

Not since 2004, though. And since then, the state’s demo­graph­ics have changed rap­idly.

(RE­LATED: Jeb Bush is Court­ing the Latino Vote. How Much Will it Help?)

Flor­ida’s pres­id­en­tial elect­or­ate is about two-thirds big­ger than the midterm elect­or­ate Re­pub­lic­ans dom­in­ate so thor­oughly. And many of the voters swell­ing the rolls dur­ing pres­id­en­tial elec­tions are His­pan­ic and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an — the vot­ing groups that loc­al Re­pub­lic­ans don’t need to lure to win and that na­tion­al GOP can­did­ates have failed to pur­sue in re­cent elec­tions. The GOP’s re­la­tion­ship with Flor­ida’s Cuban voters frays a little bit more with each gen­er­a­tion, while the large num­bers of Pu­erto Ric­ans mi­grat­ing to Cent­ral Flor­ida have be­come a solidly Demo­crat­ic bloc.

“We do ex­tremely well dur­ing midterms be­cause our elec­ted of­fi­cials do a fant­ast­ic job on the ground, be­ing in the com­munit­ies,” state party spokes­man Wadi Gait­an says. “What we want to cor­rect is dur­ing the pres­id­en­tial year, when someone who hasn’t been in the com­munity for the past two to four years is just in­tro­du­cing them­selves and the party.”

An early start could help Re­pub­lic­ans ride Flor­ida’s demo­graph­ic tide in­stead of fight­ing it. In part­ner­ship with the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, the RPOF has sta­tioned a num­ber of per­man­ent His­pan­ic out­reach co­ordin­at­ors around the state, people who didn’t fly out after the 2014 midterms but in­stead are aim­ing to cre­ate a per­man­ent pres­ence in His­pan­ic com­munit­ies. These co­ordin­at­ors could, the the­ory goes, give the GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate a head start in 2016, rather than for­cing the nom­in­ee to start from scratch in court­ing the Lati­nos who will be cru­cial to a win in Flor­ida.

“Un­for­tu­nately, Rom­ney did a ter­rible job with the His­pan­ic com­munity, and that’s why our com­munity over­all was a little frus­trated,” says Jean­nette Quinones, the state party’s His­pan­ic field dir­ect­or for Cent­ral Flor­ida. “That’s why this ex­cites me. I’m happy to be do­ing things dif­fer­ently. “¦ We’re stay­ing in the com­munit­ies, just talk­ing about what the Re­pub­lic­an Party play­book is and how the policies work for the His­pan­ic com­munity here.”

Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­ans also have a po­ten­tial ace in the hole: Of their three most likely pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees, two are home-state can­did­ates. Jeb Bush and Marco Ru­bio have or­gan­ized Flor­ida be­fore, and they could do it again rap­idly, their cul­tur­al ex­per­i­ences and lan­guage skills help­ing break through to pop­u­la­tions that get plenty of at­ten­tion in Span­ish in loc­al elec­tions but less from Re­pub­lic­ans on the na­tion­al stage. Bush re­cently made a show of an­swer­ing ques­tions in Span­ish on mul­tiple na­tion­al TV net­works, and he told en­thu­si­ast­ic sup­port­ers in the im­port­ant Tampa area that he would open his state cam­paign headquar­ters there, in ad­di­tion to his Miami-based na­tion­al HQ.

Hil­lary Clin­ton’s own pop­ular­ity with His­pan­ic voters (she out­per­formed Obama among the group dur­ing the 2008 primar­ies) un­der­scores Re­pub­lic­ans’ im­per­at­ive to woo that demo­graph­ic, es­pe­cially if her his­tor­ic can­did­acy wins more white wo­men to her side than Obama’s. Already this year, she has staked out ground to Re­pub­lic­ans’ left on im­mig­ra­tion, not only back­ing a path to cit­izen­ship but also Obama’s im­mig­ra­tion ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders, which are pop­u­lar among Lati­nos. Bush and Ru­bio have car­ried Flor­ida Lati­nos be­fore, but like nearly every oth­er Re­pub­lic­an run­ning for pres­id­ent, they have nev­er be­fore grappled with a pres­id­en­tial-year elect­or­ate.

It all adds up to cloudy skies for Re­pub­lic­ans head­ing in­to 2016. Yet the skies of­ten clear in Flor­ida after in­tense but brief storms, es­pe­cially around this time of year. In­deed, there’s pre­ced­ent for a party com­mit­tee play­ing a smal­ler role in a Flor­ida pres­id­en­tial vic­tory, one offered by Pres­id­ent Obama in 2008.

“The fact that there was no func­tion­al state party in ‘08 ac­tu­ally made my job easi­er, be­cause I didn’t have to deal with bur­eau­cracy or in­tern­al polit­ics,” says Steve Schale, Obama’s state dir­ect­or that year.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in 2010 in Coral Gables, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images) Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Jeb Bush and Marco Ru­bio in 2010 in Cor­al Gables, Flor­ida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Im­ages)Whatever dis­com­fit­ing in­cid­ents have oc­curred in 2015, the Re­pub­lic­an Party of Flor­ida is in ex­po­nen­tially bet­ter shape than its Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­part, which has been weakened fin­an­cially and struc­tur­ally by dec­ades out of power. That led to the Obama cam­paign’s own early or­gan­iz­a­tion in Flor­ida dur­ing the pres­id­ent’s first term. “In 2012, we didn’t really have an op­tion but to or­gan­ize early, and I be­lieve it made a sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ence,” says Ash­ley Walk­er, Obama’s Flor­ida state dir­ect­or in 2012.

Their ef­forts gen­er­ated about 300,000 new-voter re­gis­tra­tions, after which Obama car­ried the state by few­er than 100,000 votes. “Or­gan­iz­ing is all about build­ing a found­a­tion and then grow­ing upon that found­a­tion,” Walk­er says.

If Bush or Ru­bio emerges with the nom­in­a­tion, Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­ans would have a strong found­a­tion to build on, no mat­ter what hap­pens in 2015. That might be ex­actly how Re­pub­lic­ans grapple with a chan­ging state, even if the im­per­at­ive to get a quick start doesn’t amount to much.

But bar­ring that, in­tern­al drama could hurt the state party’s abil­ity to gath­er data, con­nect with minor­ity voters, and build lists that can turn in­to votes on Elec­tion Day. For Re­pub­lic­ans, that would prove a dis­aster with na­tion­wide con­sequences.

“We’re not ready. We’re not ready,” one seni­or Re­pub­lic­an strategist in Flor­ida stressed. “Just 67 per­cent of the elect­or­ate will be white. We’re not ready for that.”

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