The Sunshine State played a key role in the presidential election and in determining which Republican would challenge Barack Obama in 2012.
After his victory in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich was riding high and, for a moment, appeared to have a serious chance at the Republican nomination. To get his presidential bid back on track, Mitt Romney pulled out all the stops and unleashed a volley of attacks on Gingrich. Romney recovered his momentum and carried Florida while Gingrich faded, replaced by Rick Santorum as the chief alternative to Romney for the Republican nomination.
But even though Florida brought Romney back to political life in the Jan.31 primary, it turned sour for the Republican presidential candidate. With Hurricane Irene looming in the Gulf at the end of August, Republicans were holding their national convention in Tampa. The convention raised headlines for who was not in attendance. While Gov. Rick Scott monitored Irene, some leading Republicans who remain unpopular -- former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- were nowhere to be found in Tampa.
Romney failed in his chief objective in Tampa -- defining himself. With less media attention, the former Massachusetts governor needed a near-perfect convention. Instead, despite strong efforts from Ann Romney and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the Republican convention was a near disaster. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey cheerfully talked about his record while virtually ignoring Romney. Romney and his running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., gave forgettable speeches that did nothing to shape the race. The most memorable address from the Republican convention came from legendary actor and celebrated director Clint Eastwood. Right before Romney came out to give his speech, Eastwood offered a rambling speech to the convention, interviewing an empty chair that was supposed to represent Obama. It was a disaster, closing the window on one of Romneys major opportunities to shift momentum in the presidential race.
Florida was once again in the spotlight in October when Obama and Romney came to Lynn University for the third and final presidential debate. Romney had clearly won the first debate while Obama came out stronger in the second one. Romneys camp had foolishly agreed to make the third and final presidential debate about foreign policy, an area where their candidate had no experience. While the Republican tried to go after Obama on the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, the Democrat easily brushed aside the challenger's effort. The result was another setback for Romney. In a CBS poll, 53 percent of those surveyed thought Obama won the third debate; only 23 percent thought that Romney did.
On Election Night, Florida dissed the poll makers. The president beat Romney by 1 percent, slamming the door on the Republican's presidential hopes by keeping the Sunshine State blue. Despite his big win over Gingrich in January, Romneys struggle in Florida -- from a flawed convention to a weak debate performance -- helped ensure that Obama would be in the White House for another four years.
Obama was not the only Democrat to win big in Florida this year. When 2012 opened, most pundits expected U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to be in a competitive election as he sought a third term. Things appeared to be coming together for U.S. Rep. Connie Mack as he sought the Republican nomination to challenge Nelson. Despite exchanging heavy fire with Mack, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux pulled out of the primary. Mack easily dispatched Mike McCalister and a late challenge from former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon to win the Republican nomination. But Nelson turned up the heat on Mack with a series of attack ads. Mack never recovered from those, or from earlier ones by the LeMieux campaign -- while the Republican leadership, which had welcomed Mack into the race, began to express doubts about his bid. Nelson crushed Mack at the polls, taking 55 percent; the Republican trailed with 42 percent.
There were some major changes to Floridas congressional delegation in 2012. In one of the highest-profile races in the nation, Democrat Patrick Murphy overcame controversial Republican U.S. Rep. Allen Wests major financial advantage to knock him off in the general election. West took days to concede, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of many Florida voters.
In a rematch from 2010, Democrat Joe Garcia turned the tables on Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who was constantly in the news for accusations about ethics violations. Another Democrat who lost in 2010 -- outspoken liberal Alan Grayson -- came roaring back to Congress in 2012 as he emerged to represent a new district in Central Florida. But Republicans held their own as incumbents Vern Buchanan, Steve Southerland, Dan Webster and Bill Young held off major Democratic challengers.
There are also some new Republicans representing Florida in Congress. In one of the biggest political upsets Florida has seen in recent decades, tea party favorite Ted Yoho, a large-animal veterinarian who had never run for office before, defeated U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns in the GOP primary. Stearns had been in Congress for almost a quarter of a century. Conservative attorney and veteran Ron DeSantis emerged to represent a new congressional district on the Atlantic Coast. Overcoming a very crowded Republican primary field, talk-show host Trey Randel will replace Mack in representing parts of Southwest Florida.
In Tallahassee, Rick Scott could celebrate some successes -- particularly that Florida is getting back to work. In November, the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent, the lowest in four years. The governor has gained some public attention pushing for expanded trade with Latin American nations and offering the $10,000 challenge to keep higher education more affordable. But he continues to sink in the polls. Quinnipiac University released a poll in December showing that 53 percent of Republicans -- pretty close to the 54 percent who voted against him in the 2010 primary -- are open to seeing him primaried in 2014.
The Florida Legislature managed a stormy redistricting process in 2012, passed a $70 billion budget, mandated drug tests for state employees, created a new state university in Lakeland and reformed PIP insurance. But Republican infighting in the Senate, including spats over who would lead the chamber after the 2016 elections, came back to haunt the Legislature and helped doom a parental trigger bill on school choice. A series of proposed constitutional amendments that came from the Legislature suffered a series of defeats at the polls in November. Republicans lost seats in both chambers -- including Chris Dorworth who was tabbed to be House speaker after the 2014 elections -- though they still have solid majorities in both chambers.
Attorney General Pam Bondi won some political points as she led efforts to fight illegal drugs and spoke at the Republican convention in Tampa. But Bondi also had to deal with the fallout from the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling Obamacare --the federal health-care act --constitutional. After passing on running against Nelson, Floridas CFO Jeff Atwater had to spend 2012 stomping out buzz that he intends to primary Scott in 2014. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Puntam received the good news that the federal EPA agreed with the states plan on water nutrients -- and not face tougher standards that could hurt Floridas economy.
Other Florida politicians spent 2012 planning for the future. With a new book out -- and after Romney lost -- Rubio turned his eyes to 2016. The senator from Florida is already hitting key states for 2016, including Iowa and South Carolina. Some Republicans are looking to another Floridian for 2016 -- former Gov. Jeb Bush.
Former Gov. Charlie Crist, whose face is on billboards across the state advertising the personal injury law firm of Morgan & Morgan, spoke at the Democratic convention in Charlotte to endorse Obama. At the White House in December, Crist, who had left the GOP to continue his U.S. Senate bid in 2010 with no party affiliation, officially changed his registration to Democrat. Crist is expected to run for governor again in 2014, but he will face competition. Nan Rich, who led Democrats in the Florida Senate, jumped into the gubernatorial race in 2014, though her poll numbers are not particularly strong. Former state CFO Alex Sink, who was the Democratic nominee against Scott in 2010, could also run again, though her husband Bill McBride, the attorney best known for running for governor in 2002, died unexpectedly the week before Christmas.
In 2013, the Sunshine State marks the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovering the Florida peninsula. Few of those 500 years of recorded history have been as dramatic as 2012, when Florida helped shape the course of American politics.
Freelance political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.