August 26, 2014 / 9:51 PM / 3 years ago

Florida primary vote sets stage for big governor's race

TAMPA Fla. (Reuters) - Florida voters wrapped up a light day of voting on Tuesday in a primary election that will finalize the ballot for one of the nation’s most expensive and competitive governor’s races.

More than 1.2 million people cast ballots early, leaving many polling precincts quiet on election day, with low turnout overall expected for the primaries. The results in the early evening were expected to be a foregone conclusion.

Republican Governor Rick Scott faced largely token primary opposition from two little-known challengers.

Democrats got their first chance to show their enthusiasm for Charlie Crist, who governed Florida as a Republican from 2007 to 2011 and now wants the job back under a different party label.

“We don’t want to vote for him, but we’re going to have to,” said Jerry Waxman, 72, an Orlando-area Democrat.

He cast his primary vote for Nan Rich, a former state legislator from south Florida, whose primary challenge has been largely ignored by Crist. But Waxman planned to back Crist if he wins the party’s nomination.

Florida Democratic leaders, seeking to move quickly past the primary, have plans for unity rallies featuring both candidates on Thursday in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

“Democrats are just so incredibly enthusiastic about this election. There didn’t seem to be any time to waste to harvest that,” said Joshua Karp, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party.

Polls show a virtually tied race between Scott and Crist in the November election. Experts forecast a nasty, tight campaign as both parties compete for a major bully pulpit going into the 2016 presidential election.

The margins of a Crist victory could expose his weaknesses in a party he only recently joined after spending most of his political life as a Republican, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“He has not played to the base as he has to the middle,” Smith said. “In doing so, he risks alienating those core Democrats he is going to need in the general election.”

In a telling sign, Crist organized his primary night campaign party in Fort Lauderdale, a Democratic stronghold where voter turnout could be crucial to his chances in November.

Turnout in the primary election could provide an early indicator of enthusiasm for the general election, experts said.

“If the turnout is high in a primary that usually means turnout will be high in November,” said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, noting that Democrats typically struggle to get their voters out in midterm elections.

“When they do get the turnout, they win,” he added.

Additional reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando, Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee, David Adams and Zachary Fagenson in Miami.; Editing by Bill Trott and Andre Grenon

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