For GOP in Florida, it’s boom burbs or bust

It’s a crossroads moment in a wild political year, and on a street corner in the suburbs, Newt Gingrich supporters wave “Toot for Newt” signs. A few Ron Paul backers offer modest competition. Most remarkable is the intersection itself: impossibly vast, 10 lanes on a side, counting the turning lanes. Locals boast that it’s the largest traffic intersection in Florida.

So this is somewhere special. The surrounding area is known as Wesley Chapel, which is just up the road from New Tampa, which is so far from the old Tampa that the city’s skyscrapers when glimpsed from a freeway flyover are little nubs on the horizon.

The boom burbs are a signature of the Tampa area and of the politically critical Tampa-to­Orlando-to-Daytona Beach strip known as the I-4 Corridor. Florida’s solar-powered real estate industry went into a frenzy during the housing boom, carving cul-de-sacs in pastureland and creating from scratch huge bedroom communities pocked with cypress swamps and sinkholes.

“I moved to Florida 16 years ago. This street didn’t exist. It was a one-lane road,” said Tom Banks, one of the Gingrich folks waving the signs at the intersection outside the Shops at Wiregrass.

This is where presidencies can be won — or lost. The state has 29 electoral votes, as many as New York. It’s by far the largest of the swing states. It’s no accident that the Republican National Committee chose Tampa for its summer convention. On Monday, the men vying to be the party’s nominee will debate on a stage here ahead of the Jan. 31 primary.

The boom burbs pose a particular challenge for presidential candidates. The voters are often independent ticket-splitters, as transient ideologically as they are geographically.

The folks in the boom burbs also have a reputation among political operatives for being hard to reach. The rap on them is that they go home and vanish into their domestic lives. They don’t tend to vote in local elections. They’ll vote in a presidential race but aren’t likely to attend a rally or a town-hall meeting — not that there are many town halls around here.

“It’s a get-in-the-garage and shut-the-door type of community,” said Nolan Ryon, 25, as he strolled through an outdoor art festival at the mall. He’s a Republican but undecided.

“Everyone just wants privacy,” said Vicki Wise, walking with her husband, Jim. They don’t talk much with their neighbors, she said, and certainly don’t talk politics.

“They went to school somewhere else, they got married somewhere else, they raised their kids somewhere else, they spent most of their lives somewhere else. How to get new arrivals to feel a sense of participation in Florida is a challenge,” said former governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham (D).

While running for governor, and later while in office, he tried to connect with voters by doing “workdays” in which he’d pick up trash or chop onions in a restaurant kitchen, or something to that effect. He remembers Lawton Chiles winning a U.S. Senate race in 1970 by walking all across the state. But times have changed. There were fewer than 3 million people in Florida in 1950. That’s about the same number who moved here between 2000 and 2010.

To run a statewide race in Florida is extraordinarily expensive. There are 10 distinct media markets, of which Tampa Bay is the largest. This offers an advantage for Mitt Romney, who has far more money than his rivals and will benefit from a campaign in which people get much of their information from television.

But Gingrich may benefit from the state’s mood. The Sunshine State is in a dark frame of mind and may prefer the edgier, angrier style of the former House speaker.

Unemployment here is higher than the national average. Foreclosures are off the charts. Entire subdivisions built by speculators have been abandoned. The swamps threaten to reclaim chunks of paradise.

“Floridians are used to rebounding quick and leading the country out of a recession, and this time we’re lagging. People are very frustrated and impatient,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “They just blame Washington.”

Mark Sharpe, a Republican commissioner in Hillsborough, has campaigned across much of the county on foot, including during several unsuccessful races for Congress. His take: People are cranky, suspicious of both Republicans and Democrats in power, and everything’s up for grabs.

“Everything you know about politics, throw it out the window. Because it’s changing,” Sharpe said. “It’s changing rapidly, and it’s chaotic.”

A friend texted him the other day, asking: Whom do I support? Sharpe texted back: “I’m hoping for a brokered convention.”

Civic engagement and political activism are high in South Tampa, the older part of town below Kennedy Boulevard. On Saturday, thousands of people gathered along Bayshore Boulevard to watch a kid-friendly parade, part of the annual pirate-themed Gasparilla Festival. Next week, there’s the boozy, adult-friendly parade, Tampa’s version of Mardi Gras. This area is home to moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats.

“The Republicans look like a bunch of dopes right now. They can continue sinking themselves,” said Lysaundra Johnson, 42, watching the floats coast by as a pirate ship fired its cannons in the bay.

“If the best they can do is pull Newt Gingrich out of the closet from way back, that doesn’t say too much,” said David Dionisio, 32, a nurse anesthetist.

Guy Revelle, 46, a restaurateur who thinks the Republican convention will be worth “three or four Super Bowls” to the local economy, said he’s supporting Romney: “If we can just get him to release his taxes! Come on, man — so you make $15 million a year. I don’t care!”

A little further north, in West Tampa, are Democratic-leaning precincts with picturesque, defunct cigar factories, where conversations switch fluidly from English to Spanish to Italian and back. The African American community is centered in East Tampa. Still further east, near Brandon, are large numbers of evangelicals. The area features boom burbs such as Fish Hawk, which is overwhelmingly affluent and Republican, with many retired miliary officers. Finally, in the southern part of the county, is Sun City, a huge retirement community.

During the height of the boom, 5,000 new schoolchildren would appear in Hillsborough County in a single year. The local government couldn’t keep up. There weren’t enough classrooms, and countless children were learning in temporary structures. There weren’t enough roads, and the residents of the boom burbs complained of nightmarish traffic even as they voted down a referendum to impose a one-cent transportation tax.

Bill Flynn, 61, who moved to the New Tampa area in the mid-1990s, said that he voted for Barack Obama at the last minute four years ago but that he is undecided this time around. He’s a registered Republican.

He likes it in the boom burbs. It’s quiet but for the wildlife.

“For years, we could sit out here on the porch and listen to the cows, until we realized it was the gators mating,” he said.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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