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Issue #82: Charlie Crist's Pinellas County base goes red
Republicans take back the County Commission
On November 8th, Charlie Crist’s latest effort to win back the Florida Governor’s office was stopped by Ron DeSantis. That night, a massive GOP victory that I have covered here and here, saw DeSantis and Marco Rubio flip several Biden counties. The one county that I feel must hurt the most for Crist, however, is his home of Pinellas.
Charlie Crist came into Florida politics via Pinellas County, and has spent the last six years as its Congressman. The loss of Pinellas makes sense considering the massive GOP turnout advantage statewide and in the county.
The turnout gap in Pinellas was actually smaller than in many other counties. However, the fact Crist couldn’t generate higher support among Democrats within his home county really shows how bad things were statewide.
2022 marks the first time since the 1990s that Crist has fallen short in his home jurisdiction.
Charlie Crist’s History
Crist first won elected office in 1992, winning a Pinellas-Hillsborough State Senate drawn during the chaotic 1992 Redistricting Session in Florida. He unseated Senator Gordon Davis.
Crist was elected the same day Republicans tied the Florida Senate for the first time in modern history. He would use his time in the Senate to build his profile, then opting in 1998 to make a long-shot big against Senator Bob Graham. While Graham was considered an overwhelming favorite for re-election, Crist used the race to build his statewide profile. He would go on to lose to Graham by 25 points.
Crist lost Pinellas County that year, but by less than his statewide margin. He wouldn’t rest however. Two years later, he was elected Florida Education Commissioner, which was about to be eliminated as an elected post in the state as Florida reorganized its cabinet. In 2002, Crist opted to run for, and won, State Attorney General. This set himself up perfectly for a Gubernatorial run in 2006, which Crist won by 7% despite the blue wave.
Crist was the top Republican in the state by 2008, though had plenty of conservative grumbling for his more moderate stances. His decision to forgo a re-election as Governor, which he would have been a lock for, set a chain of events in motion that cast Crist out of the GOP. His decision to run for US Senate in 2010 at first seemed like a sure thing. A primary from former State House Speaker Marco Rubio was blown off by many, but the growing Tea Party movement rapidly expanded Rubio’s support. Crist was especially hit for embracing (and yes the infamous hug) Obama’s Stimulus package. It wasn’t before long that Crist was losing primary polls to Rubio. Deciding that fighting it out in the primary would not end well, Crist ran for US Senate as an independent. A split between Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek, who retained much of the African-American support, ensured a Rubio win. However, Crist did take his home of Pinellas.
After his loss, Crist would move his way into Democratic circles. He endorsed Obama in 2012, and spoke at the Democratic national convention. In 2014, he was set to run for Governor as a Democrat - going against Rick Scott. First, Crist bested Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich in a lopsided primary, then faced Scott in the general.
While Crist led for some time in the polls, Scott’s massive fundraising and self-funding ability, coupled with the 2014 red wave, saw Crist narrowly lose.
Don’t get me wrong, the Crist campaign made mistakes, which I discussed here. However, some issues were out of their hands, as they were unable to keep up with Scott’s money, and were outspent in several markets. The cycle rapidly shifting the the GOP in the closing weeks did not help. That year Democrats lost 9 Senate seats and Governorships in blue states like Illinois, Maryland, and almost in Vermont even.
Crist would go on to run for and win the Florida 13th district in 2016 - which had been redrawn as part of a court-ordered redistricting process. This district covered the south half of the county; and was modestly Democratic leaning.
With that, Crist settled into Congress, winning re-election twice and voting solidly with the Democrats. However, even before it became clear redistricting would gerrymander his district, Crist opted to run for Governor. He easily defeated Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and in that race, his best county was Pinellas - where he secured 70%.
However, the DeSantis landslide has ended his winning streak with his home county. Through he still did much better there than statewide. In fact, only in 2006 did Crist do better statewide than he he would do in his home county.
For Crist, its a sad way to go out.
Historically, Pinellas County has been the more Republican-friendly area of the Tampa Bay. The county is most Democratic in its Southern end, where the City of St Petersburg has a large black and liberal white population. The coastal towns are upper income and much more Republican; as is the northern region. The central portions of the county; places like Clearwater and Largo, are working class areas that have been well known to split their tickets. Indeed, Pinellas has long been a fan of ticket splitting. Republicans have controlled most local offices like Sheriff and Tax Collector; but Democrats have managed to win majorities on the county commission.
The County Commission of Pinellas is made up of 7 members. Three are elected countywide, while four are elected to districts. District 7 is the black-access district and has been a longtime Democratic hold; while Republicans have dominated in the other three.
Until 2012, Democrats only held District 7 on the commission. However, as Obama won the county in his 2012 re-election, two Democrats: former state Rep. Janet Long and former state Sen. Charlie Justice, won the two at-large seats that were up.
One major issue in these contests was the county’s 2011 decision to end the practice of putting fluoride in the water supply. This was decried by health experts and used by the Democratic challengers to paint the commission as caving to tea party conspiracies. The commissioners claimed the decision was a cost-cutting move during the recession, but water fluoridation has been a right-wing conspiracy for many decades. With the Democratic wins, the commission was suddenly just 4-3 Republican. Oh and the fluoride was brought back shortly after.
Then, in 2014, Crist carried his home county by 11 points; winning it 52% to 41%. The 2014 race, as it can be seen, had a decent amount of protest votes for minor candidates. The Crist win there helped Democrat Pat Gerard, a Largo Commissioner, win the last of the at-large commission district.
This win suddenly put Democrats in charge of the Pinellas Commission.
In 2016, as Donald Trump shocked the nation by winning the Presidency, he also carried Pinellas County. The flip of the county reflected Trump’s gains with white working class voters; who moved to him in central Pinellas. However, that same day, Commissioner Justice won re-election by 4 points; while Long did not face an opponent.
While Trump managed to win the county with working class support, Justice managed to retain some of that support, and overperformed the top of the ticket. This left Democrats with their 4-3 lead.
In 2018, as Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson flipped the county back to Democrats, at-large commissioner Pat Gerard did not face any opposition.
In 2020, Biden managed to narrowly win back the county, but only by 0.2%. Working class voters remained much more in the GOP camp, but Biden made some slight gains and improved with upper-income suburbs. Both at-large Democrats were up for re-election, and both won by around 1%. For comparison below, I compared Biden’s margin to Long’s.
Long was notably stronger in the corridor of working class whites that cover central Pinellas. She also did stronger in the African-American precincts of St Pete and in the northern corners of the county; especially Tarpon Springs - which has a sizeable Greek minority. The upper-income GOP coastal communities were less on board with Trump, but more GOP down-ballot.
The Democratic control of the commission, however, came to an end in 2022. As DeSantis and all other Republicans won the county, Democratic Commissioner Pat Gerard lost by 8 points.
Gerard overperformed Crist, but not by nearly enough to pull off a victory. The GOP turnout advantage was too much for local Democrats to overcome.
The result is a GOP advantage on the board of 4-3.
2024 will be a major test for Pinellas Democrats. The turnout gap will have to be narrowed there for Democrats to have a shot at holding these seats. Otherwise, the board could go back to its pre-2012 makeup.
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