On election night, Republican-voting strongholds in the Florida Panhandle provided Governor Rick Scott and gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis the boost that led to their wins. Yet, a quick look at registered voter numbers in some North Florida counties doesn’t read that way on the surface.
In Liberty, Calhoun and Wakulla Counties, many voters break from their registered party when they hit the polls. Take Liberty County. About 69 percent of its registered voters are Democrats. But in statewide races they supported Republicans in a ratio that’s almost the exact opposite. DeSantis pulled down 77 percent of the vote to Gillum’s 20 percent. In Calhoun County, registered Democrats are nearly double that of Republicans. But DeSantis was the preferred gubernatorial candidate.
Liberty’s Supervisor of Elections Gina McDowell, who declined an interview, said, “It’s always been that way.” But in Wakulla, it seems that tide is turning.
Ralph Thomas is a County Commissioner and chair of Wakulla’s Republican party. The county just this year saw Republicans overtake Democrats in registration, which Thomas says is unprecedented.
“We’ve seen a shift in Wakulla County for several years now. But typically, our county was registered probably about 60 percent Democrat, 40 percent Republican for years. Since the last presidential election, we’ve seen that gap closing much faster,” Thomas said. “As far as I know, this is the first time in the history of Wakulla County that we’ve ever had a Republican majority.”
Wakulla’s Republican lead isn’t by much – sitting just north of 50 percent. Yet in 2016’s presidential election Donald Trump got 68 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 28 percent. And in Florida’s midterms this year, Scott outperformed Nelson by 30 percent and DeSantis bested Gillum by 39 percent.
Former Florida and U.S. Congressman Allen Boyd is a lifelong Democrat who lives in the region. He points to a changing party for the answer to numbers that might perplex out-of-towners.
“I watched that over the 22 years I served in elected politics. I watched it just slowly change each cycle, we’d see the Republican members bump up in some of those rural counties,” Boyd said. “Until we got to 2010, which was the coming out of the Tea Party.”
The party had begun to shift away from the so-called “Blue Dog Democrats,” those that espoused more conservative values. As the mainstream Democratic party began to contrast more starkly, Republicans snapped up some of those voters.
“It’s hard to know exactly what was doing that except, I think the electorate began to see the Republicans more supportive of our national defense system,” Thomas said. “Maybe they were more socially conservative on some issues such as abortion, gun rights and some of those things.”
In Boyd’s estimation, it’s been mostly white men who have been leaving the Democratic Party. But, he says Democrats have been winning over the Hispanic vote, which he says is coveted by politicos in the state. Though he maintains when both parties are thriving, everyone benefits.
“We really need two strong parties in a two-party system,” Thomas said. “Our government works best when there’s a divided government, and there’s an old saying that I think has been proven several times – I saw it happen a couple times during my service – ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”