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Politics

What do Tuesday's elections mean for Florida next year?

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Published:   |   Updated: November 9, 2013 at 11:59 AM

TAMPA ญญ— Democrats nationwide exulted this week over Tuesday wins in elections nationwide ranging from governor of Virginia to St. Petersburg mayor, saying those results forecast voters turning away from Republicans in the November, 2014 elections.

Democratic operatives said the results spell problems for Republicans, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is facing re-election in 2014.

“Voters are going to suffer some buyer's remorse from the 2010 elections,” the Republican wave that brought in Scott, said Colm O'Comartun of the party's gubernatorial campaign committee. “It's going to be very difficult for Republicans to get away from their unpopular brand and tea party policies.”

But a closer look suggests that while the Tuesday elections don't offer Republicans much encouragement, they probably shouldn't be relied on in forecasting 2014 results.

In general, voters' feelings about national parties don't always translate into votes in local races, say political experts. They differed, for example, on whether the national mood had anything to do with Democrat Rick Kriseman's victory over Republican incumbent Bill Foster in a non-partisan race Tuesday.

“The more local the race, the more local the issues are and the less national trends affect it,” said New College of Florida political scientist Frank Alcock.

And even if Democrats' Tuesday wins showed disaffection with the tea party and government shutdown movement, those memories could easily fade, or be replaced with different views, by the Nov. 4, 2014, election day.

The March special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in Pinellas County will be a better bellwether to forecast 2014 results, Alcock said. “That will tell us more about what to expect in November than you can learn right now.”

Besides Scott, Congress members will be on the Florida ballot in November, along with state legislators and other top state government offices in Florida -- attorney general, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer.

Control of either house of Congress could be at stake nationally. In Florida, the governor's race is the major prize Democrats hope for, along with modest gains, but not majorities, in the Legislature.

In the Tuesday races, Democrats are particularly happy about Terry McAuliffe's win over Ken Cuccinelli for governor of Virginia.

“Cuccinelli made this election a referendum on Obamacare and Democrats made it a referendum on the government shutdown,” said national Democratic Party spokesman Mo Elleithee in a conference call with reporters. “We won.”

Elleithee said polling shows voters equate the Republican Party with the tea party, and that there's “an enthusiasm gap -- more Democrats like the Democratic Party than Republicans like the Republican Party.”

By the time of the November, 2014 election, however, either the government shutdown or the initial problems with Obamacare could fade in the public's mind, depending on events, said Dan Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who specializes in studying political campaigns.

“A lot of the frustration by the American public was taken out on Republicans in the Tuesday races,” he said. “But is that a harbinger of Democratic victory in 2014? I think that would be wishful thinking.”

Some respected political analysts question whether some of the biggest Democratic wins Tuesday turned on national issues or merely on local issues and the quality of local candidates -- or whether Democrats actually performed better than they might have been expected to.

For example:

-- In the Virginia race, McAuliffe won only narrowly despite heavily outspending Cuccinelli, who was “just too socially conservative for a moderate swing state that is trending away from its traditional roots,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. The government shutdown, meanwhile, hurt the Republican in a state where thousands of voters are government employees, and so did Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis.

-- Democrats are happy because Kriseman's St. Petersburg win is the first time voters there have turned out an incumbent under the city's current, 20-year-old form of government, and because the race turned heavily partisan -- Kriseman openly allied himself with Charlie Crist, hated by Republicans for switching parties. But Republicans pointed out that the city has a big plurality of Democratic voters, and has gone Democratic in governor and presidential races for years.

-- Not every election went the Democrats' way. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Cristie not only won re-election by a landslide but got impressive vote totals among constituencies Democrats are counting on for 2014 -- female, Hispanic and black voters.

Katie Prill, spokeswoman for the national Republican Party's campaign committee for governor's races, said the Tuesday results don't look bad for Republicans.

“We're seeing Democrats running scared because they know they can't defend Obamacare,” she said. “As the law continues to be implemented, it's only going to get worse for their chances.”

Smith said whether Republicans have problems in 2014 is more likely to depend on whom they nominate. “Have Republicans learned from the recent past and will they move toward a moderate with a better chance of winning a general election? I think there's some buyers remorse over the tea party style candidates who won in 2010,” he said.

wmarch@tampatrib.com

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