ORLANDO, Fla. -- This is Florida. And so here it was perhaps no surprise that Election Day came and went Tuesday with no resolution of the state's gubernatorial race, among the nation's most watched, most contentious and most important. That ended Wednesday morning when Democrat Alex Sink conceded the tight race to her Republican rival, Rick Scott.
The narrow margin of victory for Scott was 49 percent to 48 percent with third-party candidates accounting for the balance.
If elected Sink would have been the state's first woman governor and also the first Democrat to win the position since Lawton Chiles beat Jeb Bush in 1994. Scott's win propels Tuesday's Republican gains in Florida further and gives the party unprecedented power in Tallahassee. Republicans also appeared poised to grow their majority in the Legislature, and Florida is a critical swing state for presidential politics.
Long before Sink conceded, Scott declared victory but insisted that the vote-counting continue.
"Based on the numbers we're seeing, after all the votes are counted, I'm absolutely confident I will be the next governor," he told supporters early Wednesday at his election night headquarters in Fort Lauderdale. "We look forward to finishing the count. We know we're going to win. We have won and we look forward to getting this state back to work."
Both candidates ran as government outsiders infused with strong business backgrounds and poised to breathe new life into this economically reeling state, where the unemployment rate has reached beyond 12 percent and home values continue to spiral.
Sink, 62, worked in banking for 26 years and eventually was named statewide president of NationsBank, now Bank of America, where she oversaw 9,000 employees, 800 branches and $40 billion in customer deposits. In 2000 she left the bank and two years later became involved in the gubernatorial campaign of her husband, who lost to Jeb Bush. In 2006 she ran her first campaign and won, becoming the state's chief financial officer responsible for the state's bills and an array of other obligations from regulating funeral homes to overseeing the fire marshal's office to investigating insurance fraud.
Meanwhile Scott, 57, is a multimillionaire who surprised everyone by joining the race in April then delivering a stunning primary defeat to Attorney General Bill McCollum, a career politician here in Florida. Scott ran an ardent anti-establishment campaign, enjoying the tea party tide and shunning GOP support until after his primary victory. He ran as a values candidate and had his mom appear in one ad calling him a "good boy." He also fueled his campaign with some $73 million of his family's fortune.
Scott's experience as founder and chief executive officer of the Columbia/HCA hospital chain stalked him. He is a transplanted Midwesterner whose parents were a truck driver and JC Penney clerk, and who leveraged $125,000, his life's savings, to build Columbia/HCA from two hospitals into the world's largest for-profit hospital chain, with 340 hospitals and some 285,000 employees. Eventually the chain paid $1.7 billion to settle federal charges of Medicaid and Medicare fraud. Scott says he was unaware of the criminal activity, and he was never charged. In 1997 he was forced out by his board.
Scott's campaign against McCollum was bitter. He spent up to $50 million, more than twice that of the attorney general, making the primary race the most expensive in Florida history. Sink appeared poised to emerge from the fracas as the favored candidate. She faced no serious primary opposition from her party. Lawton "Bud" Chiles, an independent candidate and the son of Lawton Chiles who served the state for many years as governor and senator, never mustered much energy for his campaign, and he dropped out in September, giving his support to Sink. Sink's tight race with Scott illustrates the scope of voter frustration with the economy and President Barack Obama and also the value of Scott's own money to his campaign, said Dr. Lance DeHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University.
"He really doesn't have a strong case to be governor," said De-Haven-Smith, an author of "Government in the Sunshine State: Florida Since Statehood" and "The Battle for Florida: An Annotated Compendium of Materials from the 2000 Presidential Election." "He's never held elective office. He has all the baggage from his corporation's legal problems. It's amazing how well he has done. And frankly it says a lot about our electorate, that they're not well informed. They're persuaded by sound bites. They are dissatisfied and just bitter about the economy."