Florida once again looms as one of the nations chief political battlegrounds next year as Rick Scott looks to hold off Charlie Crist in the electoral main event.
A showdown between Scott and Crist will command national attention. Crists background is, to put it mildly, unusual. After spending most of his political career as a Republican, Crist ran for the U.S. Senate back in 2010 with no party affiliation. Crist is now running for governor again, this time as a Democrat.
Right now, Crist has the lead over Scott and his Democratic primary rivals. As 2014 opens, Crist should be in the limelight, especially with his memoir being released in early February. But Crist has wilted in the spotlight before. In both the 2010 primaries and general elections, Crists numbers continued to drop. Even in 2013, Crists numbers started to slip and Scott is closer now than he was when the year started.
As a former Republican, Crist is still selling himself to Democrats. For the most part, Democratic primary voters seem OK with him for the moment. Despite solid liberal credentials, Nan Rich has gone nowhere in her efforts to beat Crist. Bill Nelson is a much larger threat to Crist. Nelson continues to leave the door open to running again for governor and he'll be a heavy favorite over both Crist and Scott if he actually enters the race. Crist should be fine as long as Nelson stays out since Democrats, who havent won a gubernatorial race since 1994, are looking for a winner and can overlook his past stances. But if Nelson jumps in, Crists chances diminish considerably.
There are a host of minor candidates in the race but none of them seems likely to be a factor. Libertarian Adrian Wyllie has the best chance of the bunch to make a difference but he has not impressed with fundraising and, at the end of November, had less than $2,800 in the bank -- which does not even come to $50 a county.
The general election promises to be ugly. Both Scott and Crist will fire away at each other and spend the summer and fall exchanging attacks. Crist leads in the polls but Scott has a commanding lead in the money chase and that could prove important if the race comes down to a series of attacks. Scott should be able to focus on whoever gets the Democratic nomination
If Scott can expect a fierce race next year, most of his fellow Republicans in the Florida Cabinet should expect to cruise through November. No major Democratic opponent has stepped up yet to challenge Adam Putnam and Jeff Atwater who both won big in 2010. With both Atwater and Putnam looking down the road to run for governor, the two Republicans will try to remain in the public eye despite facing what should be easy races.
Pam Bondi should be facing more competition than Atwater and Putnam. So far, Democrats have two credible candidates in George Sheldon and Perry Thurston looking to challenge Bondi. Earlier this month, John Morgan threw out his son Mikes name as a possible candidate. Even if Mike Morgan stays out, Democrats have an interesting choice to make between Thurstons political skills and Sheldons credentials. Regardless of who she faces, Bondi starts off in the lead.
One of the first political battles in Florida will involve a special election for an open congressional seat. Democrats think Alex Sink has a great chance of picking up the seat Republican Bill Young held for decades. Some of the more prominent Republicans in the area stayed on the sidelines, leaving three lesser known candidates in the race. Whoever emerges in the Republican primary will face a tough time in toppling Sink in March.
Most of Floridas congressmen should expect to skate by in 2014, but there are some competitive races. Democrats have high hopes for Gwen Graham to defeat Steve Southerland in the Big Bend. Republicans are getting excited about Carlos Curbelo who is hoping to take on scandal-plagued Joe Garcia. Democrat Patrick Murphy is facing a host of Republican opponents as he runs for a second term. Democrats would love to take down Vern Buchanan and Dan Webster while Republicans want to pick off Alan Grayson and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, but those incumbents start 2014 with strong leads.
Democrats have little chance to pick up the seat held by Trey Radel but there is much drama circling around that race. Radel was arrested for cocaine possession this year and went into rehab. While there are growing calls for him to resign, Radel has chosen, for the moment, to remain in Congress. Republicans like Connie Mack, Paige Kreegel, Chauncey Goss and Lizbeth Benacquisto could run for the seat no matter what Radel does.
Other legislators in Florida also begin 2014 with head starts. Not a single state senator faces term limits in 2014 and only Jeff Brandes has a major opponent so far. The state House should have more competitive races with Republicans looking to defeat freshman Democrats in Central Florida. Keep an eye on competitive primaries across the state for the seats currently held by Republicans Jimmy Patronis, Bryan Nelson and Daniel Davis, and Democrats Thurston, Betty Reed, Alan Williams, Joe Gibbons and Elaine Schwartz.
Still, no mater the undercard, its pretty clear the gubernatorial race will be the main event. But 2014 will also be about 2016 as Democrats and Republicans start planning to run for president. Even as most focus is on the Scott-Crist race, keep an eye on the likes of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush as they ponder getting in the 2016 contest.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.