This past weekend, I was invited to attend a reunion celebration of the 20th anniversary of Joe Scarborough’s first campaign for Congress. Scarborough and his team did something that we rarely see in our lifetimes. They changed the course of politics not only in Northwest Florida, but also the entire state.
In 1994, Bill Clinton was president, Lawton Chiles was governor and our congressman was Earl Hutto. They were all Democrats, as were all the constitutional officers in Escambia County.
That was just the way it was until this unknown lawyer, who was only 30, decided to run for Congress. His family thought he was crazy. He had no chance and no money.
Scarborough spent what little money he had on yard signs and BLAB TV shows. He preached small government and railed against Clinton’s tax increase and health plan. Few from the local political establishment paid any attention, but others like Nan Weaver and Tom Sullivan did, and the campaign added volunteers steadily. Yard signs began popping up from Perdido Key to Panama City.
The voters were frustrated, much like the Tea Party would be 18 years later during Barack Obama’s first term. Scarborough spoke to them and they believed he could make a difference in Washington.
Scarborough also spoke to religious conservatives, a group that no candidate had seriously pursued until then. A Southern Baptist, he understood their culture and concerns. They quickly saw him as their candidate. Six years later, Texas Governor George W. Bush used the same voter base to win the White House.
When Hutto dropped out the race, the Republican establishment still wanted someone other than Scarborough. He was “too conservative, a religious fanatic.” Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) picked Lois Benson to be the nominee, but she had to get through the primary and runoff.
Then Scarborough faced Democrat Vinnie Whibbs, Jr. The National Democratic Party did not want to lose a House seat they had held since Reconstruction. The New York Times wrote the race was too close to call. Joe won with 62 percent of the vote.
Elected officials soon began switching over to the Republican Party. The Florida House of Representatives turned Republican after the November 1996 election, becoming the first legislature in a Southern state to come under complete Republican control. In 2000, Escambia County elected Republicans for Sheriff, Superintendent of Schools and four of the five county commissioners.
Now no one thinks a Democrat will ever win around here. That is until they can find their own Joe.