Republicans can look to Florida for some post-election lessons

Nov 14, 2012 by

Since the election, there has been much soul searching and punditry concerning the state of the Republican Party. What is astounding is that most of what is being discussed should have been obvious to all prior to the votes being tallied.

What’s different is that voters have spoken, not through the multitude of questionable polls, but through their actions. And while this post-election introspection has spurred a widespread analysis of the Grand Old Party as being the party of only the grand and the old, we can look to the state of Florida for some valuable lessons.

As a Republican elected official for the past 16 years, I found myself increasingly disagreeing with the direction of the party. Had I changed or was the party moving more to the right? Was the party losing touch with women, the middle class and Hispanics?

Let’s look at some of the policy decisions made by a Republican-dominated Florida Legislature and a Republican governor over the past few years in a swing state like Florida.

While criticizing government spending, the Legislature found hundreds of millions of dollars to shower on businesses to relocate or expand their operations in Florida. Recent studies have shown these expenditures have not produced the desired results. Is this a legitimate use of tax dollars?

At the same time, the Legislature, with the governor’s approval, cut K-12 education funding by over a billion dollars in 2011 and partially restored it in 2012. They also tag teamed to cut higher education funding of our 11 state universities by $300 million but thought it the right time to create a 12th university and generously fund its construction.

Very profitable friends of party leaders made out well in our tough budget years with corporate subsidies and sweetheart deals — including $1.2 billion for CSX Corp. and hundreds of millions for U.S. Sugar Corp.

While the Legislature declared war on the welfare state and those collecting unemployment, its actions also targeted our public employees. During the 2010, 2011 and 2012 sessions, bills were introduced to privatize our prisons, potentially putting thousands of corrections officers out of work with no proof of any cost savings to the taxpayers; to drastically change healthcare and pension benefits for existing state employees who had not had a pay increase for five years; to tie teacher pay to student performance with no regard to the makeup of the classroom and with no funding source to offer merit pay; and to dictate to our heroic police and firefighters what they can contribute to through a check-off on their paychecks.

Having angered many in the middle class, including our police, firefighters, teachers, corrections officers, and state employees, the Legislature turned its attention to our judiciary. First up was a proposal to add three justices to the Florida Supreme Court, then to split the court into five-person criminal and civil divisions. The rationale was caseload. After it was noted that the highest court did not have a caseload issue but that lower courts needed funding to address their heavy caseload, legislative talking points quickly shifted to address an activist court that was ruling against the Legislature and the governor.

A coalition of Republicans and Democrats killed that proposal in the Senate but allowed a constitutional amendment to appear on the ballot that gave greater power over the courts to the Legislature. That amendment was soundly defeated on Nov. 6 along with the Republican Party’s attempt to prevent three Supreme Court justices from being retained.

The Legislature loaded the ballot with 11 constitutional amendments, hoping to bring out the party faithful with hot-button issues like abortion, religious freedom, Obamacare repeal, and tax relief. With a threshold of 60 percent of the popular vote for passage, all but three of the amendments failed. The plan may have backfired with many voters motivated to defeat the social agenda items. The three that passed were property tax breaks for combat veterans, spouses and seniors.

Perhaps the most damaging legislative move was the blatant effort to drastically alter our voting process by limiting early voting and voter registration and by changing our presidential primary election date. Many questioned the motivation of this stealth move that was not properly vetted as voter suppression. Yet leadership claimed it was necessary to combat nonexistent voter fraud. The governor doubled down with a lawsuit and a voter purge.

Record numbers of new voters were registered after the courts tossed out that portion of the law; new voters showed up in long early-voting lines to defy efforts to limit their voices and Florida, once again, was the last state to declare a winner in the presidential race and became the butt of many jokes.

If there is a silver lining for Florida Republicans after the last ballot was counted, it’s that party leadership is now forced to confront what should have been self-evident — that our tent was getting very small and we were drastically out of touch with the constituents we were elected to represent. A course correction was badly needed.

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