The Sunshine State news last week was dark enough for Republicans even before the voter registration scandal hit the headlines. A Quinnipiac poll gave President Obama 53% to just 44% for GOP candidate Mitt Romney in the critical swing state of Florida, which seemed a neck-and-neck race just a few weeks ago. That body blow has since been followed by revelations that a consulting firm contracted by the Republican Party of Florida to register GOP voters is under investigation by state and local officials for election fraud.
The irony is stunning: like Republican establishments in numerous other states, the Florida GOP has declared itself the voter fraud watchdog of the 2012 election. Almost since taking office 21 months ago, conservative Republican Governor Rick Scott has pushed through tight restrictions on voter-registration groups, ramped up efforts to purge rolls of ineligible voters, made it harder for felons to regain voter rights and scaled back early voting. As a result, growing disclosures that the Arizona-based Strategic Allied Consulting—which the Republican National Committee required state parties like Florida’s to hire—may be guilty of turning in hundreds of fraudulent registrations in more than 10 counties, and is also being probed in other states, is a major embarrassment. (Strategic insists the problems are isolated and under control, but the Republicans have fired the firm.)
Worse for Romney, it makes it much harder for him to climb out of the sinkhole that has suddenly seemed to open up under his Florida campaign. As the Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo points out this week, Florida Republicans trail the state’s Democrats in new registrations this year by almost 200,000 voters. Overall, they have 443,166 fewer registered voters than Florida Dems – and with less than a week to go before the registration deadline for the Nov. 6 election, and with no registration contractor now, the state GOP will be unable to narrow that gap for its presidential contender.
Granted, voter registration shenanigans are no more an exclusively Republican problem than sex scandals are. (Florida officials say they’re also probing questionable registration forms turned in by the Latino advocacy organization La Raza, which denies any wrongdoing.) But like the latter, what usually tarnishes the GOP more is the hypocrisy, and that’s glaringly obvious in the Strategic case – especially after the successful, if less than honest, conservative crusade to destroy ACORN, the admittedly controversial liberal activist group and voter registration powerhouse. (It is now defunct after covert videos recorded in 2009 suggested but never proved criminal acts.)
A larger question is whether the GOP’s anti-election fraud campaign, Scott’s in particular, is hurting the party, Romney in particular. Earlier this year, polls showed majority support in Florida for Scott’s voter-roll purge. But controversy and public unease have dogged the project. Of the more than 2,500 names plucked from the rolls, for example, most were found to be Hispanics and other minorities—and only a handful of them were actually deemed ineligible voters under closer review. Critics call the effort just another not-so-veiled GOP effort to reduce voting by minorities and other Democratic constituencies. In August a federal judge struck down Scott’s voter-registration rules, including the mere 48-hour deadline for delivering completed forms, as “harsh and impractical.” The Obama Justice Department has challenged the legality of the voter-roll purges.
All of which has led many Floridians to ask why Scott is devoting so much time, toil and resources to an issue most U.S. electoral experts agree is not a big problem in the first place. And that, in turn, has simply reignited a chronic criticism of Scott’s governorship—that his right-wing Tea Party politics matter more than addressing the problems of a recession-racked state with an 8.8% unemployment rate.
But Scott, already one of the nation’s least popular governors, has decided to double down. Last week, after a brief hiatus in which he got the Department of Homeland Security to share a more reliable federal voter-roll data base, Scott forged ahead anew with the purge. Meanwhile, his approval rating currently stands at a lowly 38%, with 50% disapproval. Moreover, a Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll shows Scott losing the 2014 gubernatorial race to both his 2010 Democratic rival, Alex Sink, and former Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent who may soon turn Democrat.
Scott and Romney aren’t the only Republican pols withering in Florida. Just two years after the Tea Party revolt decimated the peninsula’s Democrats in 2010 mid-term elections, many top GOP candidates are on the ropes. Conservative U.S. Representative Connie Mack trails incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson by double digits in recent polls; freshman GOP Representative Allen West, Florida’s first black Republican congressman since Reconstruction, is behind Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy by nine points; and freshman GOP Representative David Rivera, under a federal campaign finance investigation, is losing by nine to Democrat Joe Garcia.
The Strategic debacle, as a result, is the last thing Romney and the GOP needed in Florida – especially with polls showing Obama with healthy leads in other battleground states like Ohio. In many of those states, in fact, judges keep striking down new Republican-led voter restriction laws, including the Pennsylvania voter ID measure that a state court blocked on Tuesday. One shouldn’t attribute too much of the Sunshine State woes to the anti-voter fraud drive; it’s just one component of what’s ailing Romney and the GOP, including Romney’s own gaffes. But if Republicans were counting on strategies like the voter-roll purge to give them an electoral edge, it may well have backfired.