St. Pete Mayor's Race: The day after
Mayor Rick Kriseman’s narrow victory in Tuesday’s primary has definitely given the mayor a boost.
Meanwhile, former mayor Rick Baker, leading in polls and fundraising all summer, is faced with a perception of underperforming in a race many expected him to close out in the primary.
The mayor before a joyous crowd at the State Theatre said Tuesday’s virtual tie with Baker was a promising omen for Nov. 7.
“We’re going to tell him something come November. We’re going to tell him that St. Petersburg has passed him by. The future belongs to us,” Kriseman said.
Baker told his supporters at the StayBridge Suites that he was prepared to battle Kriseman for the next several weeks, saying Tuesday’s dead heat was merely the first step.
Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said last night’s results contained good and bad news for both candidates.
For Kriseman, momentum and exceeding expectations are points in his favor, Paulson said. The bad news? He’s been mayor for going on four years.
“The good news is that he finished much stronger than expectations. The bad news is that he’s an incumbent mayor and he wasn’t able to convince a majority of voters that he deserves a second term at this point,” Paulson said.
Former President Barack Obama’s endorsement helped Kriseman, but Paulson said continuing to emphasize partisan politics over the next 70 days could backfire.
“It’s not a terribly strong message for an incumbent,” Paulson said. "Vote for me, I'm the Democrat. St. Petersburg voters are used to their local elections being non-partisan."
Pinellas County Democratic Party chairwoman Susan McGrath begs to differ. She said last night showed that frustrated Democrats in their first chance to vote since President Donald Trump’s victory in November made their voices heard.
“Some political insiders want to put this election and issues in a state, federal, local box. This transcends that. Everywhere I go, every day, I hear people talking about the border wall, barring transgender service people from serving,” she said. “These are personal values. And there’s nothing more important to people than their personal values.”
And McGrath said Baker’s nearly decade-long tenure as a mayor undercuts the argument that Kriseman had the incumbent’s advantage.
Paulson also noted Baker’s long history with St. Petersburg’s electorate dampened the fact that he nearly defeated an incumbent Democratic mayor in a city with 30,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
“The good news is that he almost knocked off an incumbent mayor in the primary,” Paulson said. “The bad news is that he underperformed based on expectations. And he’s not unlike an incumbent. He’s served two terms. People know him.”
So what’s next?
Turning out the base, Paulson said. Unlike 2013, when third-place finisher Kathleen Ford had nearly 10,000 votes up for grabs for Kriseman and then-mayor Bill Foster, all four minor candidates this year only netted a handful of votes.
Kriseman campaign manager Jacob Smith says the campaign will do just that, doubling down on its strategy of getting people who have never voted in a mayoral elections to the polls.
Preliminary data shows the strategy is working, Smith said, with new voters participating at about double the rate as previous elections.
One mistake for both Baker and Kriseman is the temptation to keep banging the well-trod ground of their primary campaign themes, Paulson said.
“More of the same thing is going to be detrimental to both candidates. One thing I think was lacking in this campaign is the aspirational parts of the campaign,” Paulson said who has followed the city’s elections for four decades. “Voters in St. Petersburg know both of these individuals. We know who the Democrat is. We know who the Republican is. What neither of them did is convince people: This is why you should elect me.”
The Kriseman camp says they will emphasize the mayor's leadership on issues like climate change and what they say is a conflict of interest between Baker and his current boss, Bill Edwards.
But,for now, the mayor's campaign shows little appetite to drop what appears to be working: associating Baker with Trump.
“The next ten weeks will really be about the two mayor’s records. We saw a lot of backroom behavior, Trump- like behavior during Baker's time as mayor,” Smith said.
Kriseman wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Baker’s campaign has it own plans to ramp up the ground game. Baker will be sign waving with supporters at the corner of 34th St. S and 22n Ave S. during Wednesday’s lunch hour.
Baker said he agreed with Paulson’s take.
“Seamless City is the most aspirational thing that’s been said on either side,” Baker said, referring to his familiar stump speech and book that advocates for building a community that transcends racial and class lines.
Baker declined to comment on the Kriseman’s campaign’s characterization of his similarity to Trump while he was mayor.
“I’m going to continue to reject the attempt to inject Washington-style poisonous politics into St. Petersburg. It’s done damage to our city. I understand why he does it. He doesn’t have anything else to run on,” Baker said.
Unity versus Values. Are those the emerging messaging battle lines?
Mail ballots are tentatively scheduled to go out Oct. 3.
Check back to tampabay.com for more on this developing story.