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Florida – the state to watch over the next four years

Here’s one of the eternal truths of American politics: The stories never stop, even after a presidential election.

So next month in South Carolina, former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford will run in a primary for his old congressional seat. Yes, that's the same Mark Sanford who was once supposed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail. Instead, he was with his Argentine mistress, sparking quite a scandal.

Then, later this spring in Massachusetts, there will be the race for the Senate seat vacated by new Secretary of State John Kerry. Yet with former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., declining to run, the seat will likely remain in Democratic hands.

And between now and the summer, there will be plenty of other races, legislative fights and controversies across the country to follow.

But as the political world begins turning its attention to the next presidential race -- still more than 1,300 days away -- no state will be more important to watch over the next four years than Florida.

It will be important to watch because of next year's gubernatorial race, which could be a contest between current Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Charlie Crist, a Democrat who once served as the state’s Republican governor.

It will be important to watch because two high-profile Floridians -- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Jeb Bush, another former governor -- could very well run for president in 2016. 

And it will be important because Florida, with its growing Latino vote, has emerged as a state that Republicans have to win in order to triumph in future presidential elections.

Demography is destiny in Florida
The Sunshine State consists of different geographic regions, each with their own politics. There’s the conservative-leaning Panhandle, as well as the liberal-leaning southern part of the state (mixed with its fascinating Cuban-American politics).

And then there's that swing I-4 Corridor -- Orlando, Tampa, and St. Petersburg -- although the most recent elections have suggested the region might be less swing (and more Democratic leaning) than in past cycles.

But the most fascinating part of Florida isn't geography; it's its demography.

To understand Florida’s changing demographics and the growing power of the Latino vote, consider these statistics.

In 2012, Barack Obama won just 37 percent of the white vote in the state, which was five points worse than John Kerry in 2004.

But unlike Kerry, Obama won Florida. How did he do it? For one thing, the Latino population increased from 15 percent of Florida’s electorate in 2004 to 17 percent in 2012.

More importantly, Obama won 60 percent of those voters, versus Kerry losing them in ’04. Obama also won a majority of the Cuban-American vote.

That’s the demographic reality now facing the Republican Party, and why some national Republicans like Rubio and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are working to pass comprehensive immigration reform. (It’s also why Florida has wanted to have an early role in GOP presidential nominating contests.)

As McCain recently said, “The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens."

And if Republicans can’t win Florida in presidential elections, it’s next to impossible to win the White House.

After all, a Democratic candidate winning just the three states of California, Florida and New York gets 113 electoral votes -- more than 40 percent of the necessary 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

Scott vs. Crist?
After its losses in 2012, the first test of how the Republican Party is faring in Florida will be its competitive gubernatorial contest next year.

While the race is more than a year away, here are three sets of figures to keep in mind.

The first is 31 -- that’s the percentage of Floridians holding a favorable view of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, according to a December Quinnipiac poll. Compare that with 54 percent for President Obama and 47 percent for Republican-turned Democrat Charlie Crist.

The second number is 8.0 percent -- that’s Florida’s current unemployment rate. It’s a high number, slightly above U.S. average. But it’s down from the 10.9 percent it was when Scott first took office. That’s progress Rick Scott can point to.

The third and final number is 80 -- as in the $80 million Scott spent in his successful gubernatorial bid in 2010. That’s a lot of money, and money Democrats won’t be able to match. And it’s now being reported that Scott could spend as much as $100 million in next year’s race.

In addition to those three sets of numbers, there are three unresolved questions:

-- Does Charlie Crist run? If he does, he’d be the Democratic front-runner, despite his recent conversion to the Democratic Party.

-- Can Scott improve his standing with independent voters? In that December Quinnipiac poll, just 25 percent of independents had a favorable view of the governor.

-- And can Scott and Republicans make better inroads with the growing Latino vote?

2016: Rubio and Jeb
So that’s for 2014. But there’s another story already developing involving the Sunshine State – the 2016 presidential election.

Yes, it’s early. Yes, things are fluid. And, yes, everything right now is speculation. But it’s also clear that freshman Sen, Marco Rubio is more than eyeing a potential presidential bid.

As one Florida Democratic strategist told First Read: “I believe [Rubio] runs in 2016 for the same reason that President Obama ran in 2008 -- you never know when the window opens and closes.”

Rubio has assembled a top-notch staff. What’s more, he’s part of a group of bipartisan senators pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, whose principles are broadly supported by President Obama.

Rubio’s current task is selling this reform to prominent conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. 

And on Tuesday night, Rubio will be delivering the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday, which is a huge platform for the Florida senator.

But here’s the question for him: Does he run if another Floridian -- former Gov. Jeb Bush -- runs? Is there enough space for two Florida Republicans in a potential 2016 GOP primary?

As Buzzfeed recently wrote, “With their shared passion for immigration reform, overlapping donor networks, and long, healthy alliance, Rubio and Bush have put Miami's political class in the improbable position of having two ‘favorite sons’ in the top tier of 2016 speculation — and sources say both men are actively mulling it.

Indeed, there are indications Bush is at least considering a presidential run. Next month, he is scheduled to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, an annual cattle call that’s a must for potential Republican presidential candidates. And this will be the first time Bush has spoken to this group.

Jeb Bush. Marco Rubio. Rick Scott. Charlie Crist. Demographics. Close races (some decided by hanging chads).

Florida has been the place for some of America’s best political stories for more than a decade. And, it’s safe to say, that will continue over the next four years.

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a recent speech the author gave at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla.