Florida, the state of the hanging chad, once again has something new for the political world — a race for governor that may be determined by fan interference.
That would be an electric fan, dark brown plastic, less than a foot across. On Wednesday night, its presence under the lectern used by former Gov. Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-Democrat, led to incumbent Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, not coming out on stage for a live, televised debate.
About 6 1/2 minutes passed before Scott showed up and the debate began.
During the subsequent 54 minutes, the two men aired stark differences on almost every issue in a race that has been a dead heat for weeks.
But on Thursday, Fangate, as social media inevitably tagged it, dominated headlines and newscasts across the state, a reminder that for all the focus groups, polls and message testing of modern campaigns, politics can still turn on those unexpected, sometimes bizarre, moments where nothing follows a script.
Most news accounts of the night’s proceedings included two lines that could stick in voters’ minds.
The first came from the debate’s moderator, Eliott Rodriguez, the news anchor for the CBS affiliate in Miami: “We have been told that Gov. Scott will not be participating in this debate,” he said, as the camera showed Crist standing alone on stage, and jeers and derisive laughter rose from the audience.
The second came from Crist: “Are we really going to debate about a fan? Or are we going to talk about education and the environment and the future of our state? I mean, really.”
After the debate, Democrats made little effort to conceal their glee, taking to Twitter to keep the story alive. Scott sought to explain his initial absence by saying that he hadn’t been sure Crist would show up.
The dispute may have been trivial, but the stakes are high. Although the battle for control of the U.S. Senate has garnered the lion’s share of national attention this election season, the races for governor, of which Florida is the marquee contest, could prove more consequential.
The election tests the staying power of a crop of conservative Republicans elected with tea party support four years ago. With balloting already underway in many states, one of those GOP governors, Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett, appears almost certain to lose; four others, including Scott, are in danger.
In each of those states — Maine, Kansas, Wisconsin as well as Florida — Democrats argue that the incumbent Republican chief executives are too conservative for their states.
In Florida, Democrats, who carried the state in each of the last two presidential elections, are anxious to prove that they can win statewide without President Obama on the ballot generating a large turnout of minority voters. The challenge of turning out minorities, young voters and other key elements of the Democratic coalition could be particularly difficult with Crist, who held a series of public offices as a Republican, starting in 1992, before becoming an independent in 2010 and then a Democrat.
That’s particularly true in south Florida, where Obama piled up large margins in the last two elections. Crist’s political base is in the Tampa Bay area in the central part of the state.
But “Rick Scott makes it easier” to motivate Democrats for Crist, Mike Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, said this year. The governor, elected in 2010 by a margin of just over 1%, has been a polarizing figure in state politics, fighting with major Democratic constituencies, including teachers and trial lawyers, and pushing policies that Democrats argue are outside the centrist governing style that has been the state’s norm for most of the last generation.
“This is not your father’s Republican Party,” Vice President Joe Biden said this week, describing Scott’s positions as he campaigned for Crist in two south Florida stops, at one of the region’s largest senior citizen communities and at a college with a heavily minority population. First Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to visit the state Friday.
During Wednesday’s debate, Crist attacked Scott for cutting state aid to education, downplaying the threat of global warming, blocking a minimum wage increase, opposing same-sex marriage and not pushing to expand Medicaid to about 1 million low-income Florida residents who could be eligible under the Affordable Care Act. He also said he would seek to amend the state’s “stand your ground” law on self-defense, which Scott said he would not change.
Scott, repeatedly referring to his predecessor as “Charlie,” accused Crist of not attending to his work when he was governor. Crist, he said, spent most his time trying to become vice president or run for the Senate, not doing his job. “Charlie is a lot of talk,” Scott said, “not a lot of action.”
The Republican incumbent questioned the sincerity of Crist’s positions, an obvious weak point for a party switcher. He also repeated a charge aired in his television ads, saying that Florida had lost more than 800,000 jobs during Crist’s tenure as governor, which began in January 2007.
Crist shot back that “the people of Florida know I didn’t cause the global economic meltdown.”
But in the end, the most lasting memory in voters’ minds seems likely to be the fan.
Known for his immaculate silver hair, flawless tan and obsessive attention to his appearance, Crist doesn’t go anywhere without his fan. On the campaign trail, an aide always has one ready so that no one ever need see the once and perhaps future governor sweat. In a career of shifting allegiances, the fan is one of the few constants in Crist’s public life.
Political opponents have complained about the fan before and sometimes tried to ridicule Crist’s reliance on it. But in steamy Florida, voters have never seemed to hold it against him.
Asked about it late in the debate, Crist had a ready answer: “Is there anything wrong with being comfortable?”