Hillary Loses First Primary of 2016

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Jacksonville — Republicans scored a big win in Florida this week. Big, that is, for anybody interested in beating Hillary Clinton next year.

You know the syllogism. Anybody who wants to beat Hillary in 2016 must win Florida and there are only two ways to win Florida – the Bush way and the Obama way. You can run up Republican margins in the north and pare down Democratic margins in the south. That’s how Bush won here in 2000 and 2004. Or you can run up Democratic margins in the south and pare down Republican margins in the north. That’s how Obama won in 2008 and 2012.

In 2012, those pared-down GOP margins in north Florida played a big part in Obama’s statewide victory, which in turn played a big part in his national election. Much of the credit, some of it deserved, went to Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, an African-American protégé of Bill Clinton who, it was thought until earlier this week, was on his way either to the Governor’s mansion in Tallahassee or a cabinet post in a Hillary Clinton administration.

During his first term, Brown has been an affable and ubiquitous presence around the city and established himself as a clear favorite for re-election — a well-liked and scandal-free incumbent, a moderate Democrat in a 30-percent Black city. But Brown’s approach to governing was more senatorial than mayoral. A senator can sit at his desk in the Capitol – a desk once occupied by Henry Clay, say, or if you drew the short straw, Joe Biden – and watch the oratorical opportunities pile up in front of you. A senator can muse quietly, “Let’s see, which hobby horse should I ride around the Rotunda today?”

It’s different being mayor. The speaking invitations abound, but what piles up on the desk are problems – issues that must be resolved, people who must be managed, fires that must be extinguished. Brown’s habit was to stare at the spreading pile and then leave the office to throw out the first pitch at a softball game. The kids loved it, the parents began to wonder. When Brown returned to the office, the problems, disappointingly, were still there. Most disappointing of all, the accounting problems were still there. Even after four years in office, Brown still couldn’t seem to get a handle on the city budget, much less on the massive shortfalls in public employee pension funds.

Which created an opening. The Republicans fielded an energetic young businessman, Lenny Curry, who happened to be a CPA. Curry could parse the financial statements that seemed to perplex Brown. Curry could talk fluidly and sensibly about budgetary solutions that Brown struggled to comprehend. Curry seemed up to the job, Brown not so much. (It didn’t hurt, either, that Curry received the endorsement of the Sheriff, a telling imprimatur in a city with a crime rate rising alarmingly.) I can’t remember the last time an important election turned on the issue of administrative competence, but this one did. Curry won Tuesday night by a whisker, 51-49. Who knew? Green Eyeshade Republicanism is back. While the victory wasn’t exactly Reaganesque, the GOP will take it.

Around the turn of the year, when national analysts began to smell a close race, bigfoot pols from both parties lumbered into the campaign. Bill Clinton came in for Brown. Mitt Romney came in for Curry. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio competed with each other in over-the-top campaign encomia. (For reasons known only to God, Rick Perry also came in for Curry. Twice.) Money flowed copiously, much of it from out of state. Total spending figures are not yet available, but my guesstimate is that they will be close to $15 million by the time the last bills are paid (or in Brown’s case, partially paid). The race had been nationalized.

What was all the fuss about? What does this election mean for national politics? First, it means that Jacksonville becomes the second of the nation’s largest twelve cities to go Republican. That’s not much to brag about but, until last year when San Diego flipped, there were none. Call it a trend-let.

Second, and more important, it means that Florida is up for grabs again in 2016. Remember Romney’s losing margin in 2014? It was 73,000 votes, out of 8.4 million cast. Remember Bush’s winning margin in 2000? It was 537 votes, not counting Supreme Court justices. Observers on both sides of the aisle will tell you that the Jacksonville election was a serious setback for the Clinton campaign. The national media, predictably, averted their eyes.

Your responses welcome at nealfreeman@blackwellcorp.com.