Rubio Leads GOP Rebound in Fla.

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Alan Diaz / AP

Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio and his wife Jeanette smile as TV stations call the race in his favor in Coral Gables, Fla., on Nov. 2, 2010

If any state illustrates the screeching U-turn that American politics has taken in two short years, it's Florida. In the 2008 presidential election, Sunshine State voters made Barack Obama the first northern Democrat to win the peninsula since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 — and a big reason was their desire for the more pragmatic, less partisan leadership they prized in their governor, moderate Republican Charlie Crist. But on Tuesday night, Floridians like Carlo Sanchez made it clear why they had dumped Crist for the more conservative Marco Rubio in the marquee race for the state's open U.S. Senate seat.

"Crist likes to drive all over the political landscape, wherever he thinks he can gain a political advantage," said Sanchez, 67, a retired Miami customs broker sporting a classic Ernest Hemingway beard and a blue guayabera shirt as he waited for Rubio, Florida's former house speaker, to arrive at the ornate Biltmore Hotel to give his victory speech. "Marco, on the other hand, has always driven straight. He's a real righteous guy, a real conservative. That's what people want right now."

In Florida, America's new bellwether state, the direction of the vote in the Senate race — where Republican Rubio, the 39-year-old son of Cuban exiles, routed Crist, who last spring bolted the GOP to run as an independent, 49% to 30% — was the same in just about every important congressional contest. The 22nd Congressional District was won by Allen West, who will be the state's first African-American Republican to go to Congress since Reconstruction. In the gubernatorial election, the only major race that remained undecided as of 2 a.m. on Wednesday, controversial Republican Rick Scott looked set to win with a razor-slim edge, 49% to 48%, over Democrat Alex Sink. As former Florida governor and alpha Republican Jeb Bush said, the state's voters were looking for "principle-centered" conservatives who wouldn't "rely on this oppressive [federal] government to solve our problems for us."

No Florida victor exemplified that anti-Obama turn to the right more than Bush's protégé Rubio, whom supporters are already touting as a presidential candidate for 2016. Rubio's improbable primary-election challenge against Crist, who infuriated the right last year by embracing Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus program (and by hugging Obama at a stimulus rally), was the first real cause célèbre for the conservative, anti–Big Government Tea Party movement, which so dramatically and so angrily influenced these midterm elections. Rubio trailed Crist in the spring of 2009 by 38 points but by early this year led his opponent by more than 20 points. (Until September, Crist actually led the general-election polls in his three-way race with Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek — a popular African-American Representative who finished third with 20% and was reportedly encouraged by national Democratic leaders in October to drop out in favor of Crist.)

Ironically, however, Rubio fended off Crist's independent candidacy by smartly avoiding the Tea Party radicalism that catapulted him (and ultimately tripped up other Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle in Nevada). In the end, Rubio even outpolled Crist among Florida's large cache of independent voters, who make up a fifth of the electorate, 48% to 37%. And in an economically battered state that this year registered its worst unemployment rate ever, topping 12%, he even picked up Democrats like Marcia Friedman, a Miami business consultant who showed up at the Biltmore. "I just felt like Rubio heard the pain, realized the trouble the country's in," she said. "His values had a stronger voice for voters like me this time."

Still, even though Rubio is the new Republican golden boy, he made it clear, as so many other Tea Party–fueled pols around the country have, that his party's establishment had been wayward. "This election is not about an embrace of the Republican Party," Rubio told the Biltmore crowd. "It's a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago." He added, "Our nation is headed in the wrong direction, and both parties are to blame," and he promised to take "a road that says our children deserve to inherit the greatest society in all of human history."

But in Florida, at least, voters blamed the Democrats — and it showed with results that were more avalanches than landslides. In the 24th Congressional District, which includes the recession-ravaged Space Coast, freshman Representative Suzanne Kosmas — a Democrat who in 2008 handed the incumbent the worst defeat of any Republican in the nation that year — was trounced by Republican Sandy Adams, 60% to 40%.

Next door in Orlando, in the 8th Congressional District, another freshman, Democratic Representative Alan Grayson — who won in 2008 largely because voters in Florida's centrist I-4 corridor were tired of shrill, polarizing incivility from the right, and so proceeded to give them shrill, polarizing incivility from the left — got crushed almost as badly, 56% to 38%, by Republican Daniel Webster. In the northern panhandle's 2nd Congressional District, seven-term incumbent Allen Boyd, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, paid the price for backing Obama's health care reform with a 13-point loss to Republican Steve Southerland. And the one congressional district Florida Democrats thought they had a chance to pick up, the 25th in Miami, turned out to be an illusion, with Democrat Joe Garcia losing 42% to 52% to Republican and fellow Cuban-American David Rivera.

The most jarring Republican victory for Florida Democrats, if his lead holds into Wednesday morning, would be Rick Scott's in the governor's race. Scott, a conservative who resigned in disgrace in 1997 as CEO of the world's largest hospital corporation, Columbia/HCA, when it was fined a record $1.7 billion for the worst Medicare fraud in U.S. history, spent an incredible $73 million of his and his family's fortune on his campaign. Even some leaders inside the Florida GOP recoiled at Scott's corporate past — as well as his arrogant refusal in the campaign to discuss it — and his extravagant expenditure.

But Scott's pledge to chainsaw taxes and government bureaucracy — coupled with the Dems' inability to produce a stronger candidate than the state's little-known CFO, Alex Sink — was nonetheless a lure to fuming Floridians. If he wins, his critics will say he'll have pulled off what billionaire Republican Meg Whitman (who spent $140 million) couldn't do in California: buy one of the nation's most important statehouses.

Little wonder, as a result, that the more inspiring image the GOP preferred to transmit out of Florida on Tuesday night was that of Rubio, the son of an immigrant bartender.