Are Republicans Losing Panhandle Grip?


By: Wall Street Journal

By COREY DADE

TAMPA, Fla. — Even as Tuesday’s primary here gave Arizona Sen. John McCain new momentum going into next week’s Super Tuesday voting for the Republican presidential nomination, it revealed signs of stress in the party’s pivotal grasp on Florida.

A toxic brew of economic anxiety, a deepening housing slump, skyrocketing home insurance, strained schools and the lingering effects of recent hurricanes have spawned a gloomy mood in Florida. Tuesday’s primary results, in which Mr. McCain won with just 36% of the vote, showed Florida Republicans still splintered.

The absence of a broadly unifying Republican candidate has encouraged some disgruntled voters to break from typical voting patterns, including some formerly staunch Republicans who now are backing Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York or Barack Obama of Illinois.

It is too early to predict how voters in Florida will vote in November, but in recent months, a drift away from Republican leadership — especially among the state’s nearly two million independent voters — has been apparent in some Florida polling data. In surveys conducted by Quinnipiac University periodically throughout 2007, Florida voters narrowly but consistently favored Mrs. Clinton over Mr. McCain in a general election.

In a general election pitting Mrs. Clinton against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, respondents said they would prefer Mrs. Clinton by eight percentage points, with 7% undecided. The last poll, in October, took place before Mr. Obama’s rise to prominence following his Iowa primary victory. Even then, he was tied against McCain, at 42%, with 9% undecided. Mr. Obama led Mr. Romney by seven percentage points, with 11% undecided.

Other indicators make clear that Republicans are likely to face a tough contest to retain Florida this fall. On Tuesday, although no Democratic candidate actively campaigned in Florida, 1.7 million voters participated in the Democratic primary — 189,890 less than in the hotly contested Republican race.

The state’s roughly 10.2 million registered voters are divided among 4.1 million Democrats, 3.8 million Republicans, 1.9 million nonaffiliated voters and about 400,000 minor-party members.

Between the fall of 2006 and the end of 2007, Democrats added a total of nearly 17,000 voters, while Republicans lost nearly as many, according to party registration numbers.

The Republicans’ advantage among Latinos also is thinning, as they lost voters by way of party defections, relocations out of state, or the state’s periodic purge of outdated voter data.

At the same time, the Democrats made gains in registering new Latino voters, particularly in Miami-Dade County, where Cuban Americans have delivered a rock-solid Republican bloc for four decades.

The surge is strengthening what already was expected to be a fierce face-off between South Florida’s two most well-known Cuban politicians, incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Democratic former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez.

State Republican officials dismiss the fluctuations in registration as normal between the start of an election cycle and when actual voting begins. They said voter interest in primaries is driven by the individual candidates rather than the party, which won’t coalesce into full force until the general election.

“We’ve got a stronger ground game than the Democrats and that will show once again once we have a nominee,” state party spokeswoman Erin Van Sickle said. “That’s when the real work begins.”

Republicans have controlled Florida politics for a decade by knitting religious and social conservatives in the northern panhandle and Cuban Americans in the south with moderate suburbanites across the center. Political power flowed from Governor Jeb Bush and delivered the pivotal edge his brother, George W. Bush, needed for two terms in the White House.

In the razor tight 2000 election, Florida’s 25 electoral votes tipped the balance for Mr. Bush to take the presidency. Four years later, Mr. Bush carried the state with a comfortable five-percentage-point margin.

“They are going to have to work hard,” Daniel A. Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said of the Republicans. Nonaffiliated voters, he said, “are 22% of the electorate. The Democrats have actually been doing better than the Republicans in increasing their numbers. I think it’s a leading indicator.”

Jeb Bush’s successor, Charlie Crist — who endorsed Mr. McCain days before the primary — is trying to hold together key constituencies feeling the pinch of his severe funding cuts aimed at closing a billion-dollar budget deficit.

Reconstituting the traditional Republican coalition won’t be easy under current economic conditions, especially in places such as the Interstate-4 corridor that stretches from Tampa in the west through Orlando to Daytona in the east.

In 2006, Arlene Andrews moved to suburban Tampa from Long Island, N.Y., when her husband got a job running a plant that makes cardboard and foam packaging. The Andrews settled on a four-bedroom white stucco home in the new Meadow Pointe subdivision, a huge gated complex of smaller communities, four public schools and a supermarket on the way. They closed the deal in May of that year for $365,000. Two months later, she noticed homes at the back of the subdivision selling for $304,000.

Property-insurance rates in the county, Pasco, are the second-highest in the state. More than a half-dozen nearby homes are in the early stages of foreclosure. One sits on the street behind the Andrews’ home.

“The middle-class is falling further and further behind,” said Mrs. Andrews, 50 years old. Long a registered Republican, and self described fiscal and religious conservative, Mrs. Andrews changed her party affiliation to Democrat last fall and said she will vote for Mrs. Clinton.

–Paulo Prada contributed to this article.

Write to Corey Dade at corey.dade@wsj.com

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