Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Charlie Crist rallied their most reliable supporters Monday on the last day of a long and brutal campaign, as all signs point to a close and suspenseful fight for control of the Governor’s Mansion.
Scott, accompanied by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, worked his way across the I-4 corridor from Clearwater to Plant City to Lakeland and The Villages, the mega-retirement complex that’s a mandatory destination for Republican candidates.
“We’re going to announce at 8 o’clock [Tuesday] that we kicked Charlie’s rear,” Scott told retirees at The Villages. “And he deserves it.”
Crist countered with a last-minute appearance by former President Bill Clinton at a nighttime student rally at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
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It was the final stop on a bus tour that took Crist and his running mate, Annette Taddeo, through the heart of the South Florida Democratic base, including stops in Allapattah and Lauderdale Lakes, inner-city areas with many African-American voters.
“Looks like it’s going to be tight,” Crist told supporters at a union hall in Miami-Dade. “But it’s going to be good.”
It has been a caustic and ugly race between two highly polarizing political figures. Scott and Republicans have had more than twice as much money as Democrats, who have focused on a stronger get-out-the-vote effort with more than 130 paid staff members, many of them in South Florida.
The campaigns and their allies have combined to spend at least $104 million on TV ads since March, the majority from Scott, who’s on pace to spend more than $100 million on his reelection effort. Most of the ads have been negative.
Even before the polls across the state open Tuesday, half of all likely voters had already cast ballots — nearly 3.1 million in all. That total includes a Sunday surge of thousands of Democrats, many of them African Americans, who helped to shrink the Republicans’ pre-election ballot advantage to slightly more than 100,000 votes.
The Republican margin over Democrats in ballots cast so far stood at 100,583 or 3.3 percentage points Monday. Before the church bells rang Sunday, the Republican lead was 126,652 or 4.3 percentage points.
The GOP enters Election Day with more than 100,000 additional “banked” votes but it could be as high as 112,000 if mail ballots continue to flow in on Election Day at the same rate.
But that would be about 40 percent of the Republicans’ 277,000-vote advantage at the start of Election Day in 2010 when Scott defeated Democrat Alex Sink by 61,550 votes.
Democrats have more than enough voters to make up the deficit with an advantage of more than 455,000 registered voters. But the question that could decide the election is which side will get more voters to the polls — the question that has overshadowed the campaign since it began.
Projections are that up to 3 million more Floridians will cast ballots Tuesday in choosing the state’s 46th governor. That would produce an overall turnout of about 50 percent, slightly higher than four years ago.
In the state’s three largest counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, 705,000 people have voted, and Democrats have a commanding advantage: 51 percent to 31 percent for Republicans and the rest from independents. South Florida turnout rates are slightly lower than in Tampa Bay counties.
On Monday, Quinnipiac University released a statewide survey of 817 likely voters conducted last week. Crist received 42 percent, Scott 41 percent and Libertarian Adrian Wyllie 7 percent, with 9 percent undecided and a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Scott and Crist are neck-and-neck in another category, as many Florida voters don’t like either one of them. Their unfavorable ratings remained nearly identical in the poll, with Scott at 49 percent and Crist at 50 percent.
At a Republican get-out-the-vote rally at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City on Monday, Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Gov. Jeb Bush heaped praise on Gov. Scott and scorn on Crist.
“We have a candidate running for governor that’s a great yapper. His name is, my mother probably wouldn’t want me to say this, his name is Charlie Crist,” Bush said. “All he does is talk. He doesn’t act. He doesn’t lead. He doesn’t believe in anything but his own ambition.”
For either Scott or Crist, and for their millions of supporters, an excruciating defeat awaits — barring such a close tally that it demands an electronic recount.
Scott is seeking to be only the second Republican governor in Florida history to win back-to-back terms, and a victory by Crist would end the Democrats’ 16-year exile in the governor’s office.
Crist brushed aside questions about whether he has chosen the co-leaders of a transition team if he’s reelected to the job he held as a Republican from 2007-2011. Speculation centers on Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach lawyer and former state legislator, and Roberto “Bobby” Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer who coordinated transitions for Crist in 2006 and former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002.
“Let’s not put the cart before the horse,” Crist said. “But those are great people.”
So far, the 2014 Florida vote has been largely free of complaints of irregularities or partisan allegations of voter suppression that have marked recent elections.
Voters statewide on Tuesday also will elect all three Cabinet members and decide three proposed amendments to the state Constitution. The ballot questions deal with an expansion of state funding of water and land protection from existing tax revenues, legalization of medical use of marijuana and allowing the next governor to appoint three Supreme Court justices as his term ends in 2019.
Polls throughout the state are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time, and counties are required to report their first set of partial returns by 7:30 p.m. Because some counties in the Panhandle are on Central Standard Time, the state will not report any statewide totals until after 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
Scott’s election night party will be at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point resort in Bonita Springs, not far from his Naples home. Crist’s party is at the Renaissance Vinoy in his hometown of St. Petersburg.
Herald/Times staff writers Adam C. Smith, Kathryn Varn, Amy Sherman and William R. Levesque contributed to this report, which uses information from The Associated Press.