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Rick Scott is Florida’s next governor

Democrat Alex Sink succumbed to the inevitable Wednesday morning, conceding Florida’s razor-thin gubernatorial contest to Republican Rick Scott after an overnight drama that saw both candidates waiting for results to trickle in from South Florida.

“There is no path to victory for us,” Sink told a few dozen reporters gathered in a ballroom at the Tampa Marriott Waterside hotel Wednesday morning. “Rick Scott will be the next governor of Florida.”

Sink said she called Scott this morning and urged him to focus on uniting a narrowly divided electorate. Scott won by roughly 1 percent of the vote in the closest Florida gubernatorial election since Gov. Lawton Chiles edged challenger Jeb Bush in 1994.

“I hope Rick Scott remembers there are 2.5 million Floridians who did not vote for him and that his highest priority has to be to bring our state together,” Sink said.

At his elections headquarters at the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina on the Intracoastal, the Republican governor-elect gave a victory speech shortly after noon, to supporters who put their celebration on hold last night.

“There were plenty of pundits, politicians and insiders who said this victory was impossible, but the people of Florida knew exactly what they wanted,” Scott told the exuberant crowd, flanked by his family and running mate, Jennifer Carroll.

“In this election they sent a message loud and clear. They said ‘Let’s get to work.'”

Among the supporters was prominent Jacksonville developer Toney Sleiman, 60, who drove down Tuesday with his wife and three children.

Sleiman said he was initially a supporter of Scott’s Republican primary challenger, Bill McCollum, but he decided to support Scott after inviting the candidate to a meeting in his office last spring that included Sleiman’s children.

“I looked over at my kids and said we are going to jump into this campaign,” Sleiman said. “Everything he talked about — downsizing government, reducing real estate taxes, jobs, anybody that gets money from the state should be drug tested — and I agree with that.”

Sink had refused to concede Tuesday night, pinning her hopes on some Democratic-friendly precincts in South Florida and Tampa that had yet to be counted. But they weren’t enough; with all but a single precinct in Broward County and some absentee ballots outstanding, Scott leads by an extraordinarily slim but still insurmountable 68,277 votes – a margin of just 1 percent.

Sink attributed the defeat to two factors: A national wave of support for Republican candidates – the GOP claimed everything from control of the U.S. House of Representatives to all three statewide Cabinet seats in Florida – and the record $73 million of personal wealth that Scott, a controversial healthcare executive, poured into his race.

“We lost because of forces beyond our control, because of the money and the mood of the country,” Sink said. Asked if she would have done anything differently with her own campaign, she replied, “Absolutely not.”

Scott had emerged from his Fort Lauderdale hotel room shortly after 2 a.m., to pitch good news to about 150 cheering supporters.

“I apologize this has taken so long,” he said. “Let me tell you some good news: Based on the numbers we’re seeing now . . . I am absolutely confident I will be the next great governor of the state of Florida.”

Many of the uncounted votes in the governor’s race had been in Palm Beach County, the same county that drew national attention for its controversial Butterfly Ballot during the legally contested 2000 presidential election.

In the moments before all ballots were counted, election officials still were conducting the tallying and troubleshooting issues. Ten cartridges had not been reading properly, and ballots instead had to be pulled and counted using a high-speed reader, said Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher.

Scott, 57, becomes the state’s 45th governor and its first self-financed one. He poured a total of $73 million of his personal wealth into his out-of-nowhere candidacy launched in April, including $53.3 million to win a bitter primary against Attorney General Bill McCollum.

“We know we’re going to win. We have won. We look forward to getting the state back to work,” Scott said.

Scott’s win gives the GOP unprecedented control in Tallahassee, thanks to big wins Tuesday. In the Legislature, Republicans were poised to grow their majorities from 26 seats to perhaps 28 in the 40-member Senate and 81 seats in the 120-member House.

“This is the best number for Republicans since Reconstruction,” said incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

Combined with the two new conservative presiding officers — Speaker-designate Dean Cannon of Winter Park and Haridopolos — Scott’s win is likely to revive recent efforts to pass tougher abortion restrictions, slash the state’s Medicaid program and take away teacher tenure while increasing vouchers for private schools.

In all, Scott and Sink spent more than $55 million — a record — on television and radio advertising during the past two months, including both campaign and political-party money. Pollsters had the race in a statistical tie.

The race drew national attention. The governor has veto power over the congressional-redistricting maps legislators will start drawing next year and will hold sway over the nation’s largest swing state heading into the 2012 presidential election.

One measure of Florida’s importance: national Republican and Democratic governor’s associations poured a combined $13 million into the fight, the largest-ever investment for both organizations in a single race.

Scott entered Election Day with a sizable early-vote advantage. For the first time this decade, Republicans cast more early ballots than Democrats, 485,171 to 437,611, according to an Orlando Sentinel/Sun Sentinel analysis.

When absentee ballots were included, about 2.2 million people had voted early, with Republicans boasting an overall 271,000-vote advantage.

But Republican had entered the race with other problems of their own making. Virtually the entire GOP establishment had thrown in with primary opponent Bill McCollum — mostly to avoid a costly primary. But that plan imploded when Scott launched his self-funded crusade in April, touching off an ugly, personal primary.

When Scott won, 46 percent to 43 percent, he had to make peace both with the “Tallahassee insiders” he had railed against and the majority of Republicans who had voted for someone else. But the party quickly fell into line behind him, though McCollum didn’t finally endorse Scott and his running mate, former state Rep. Jennifer Carroll of Jacksonville, until two weeks ago.

Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, entered the 75-day general-election campaign up 7 points in the polls, largely because Scott had been so roughed up by McCollum. She hammered Scott over the largest Medicare fraud investigation in U.S. history at Columbia/HCA, the health-care company Scott created. The company was fined $1.7 billion after Scott was ousted as chief executive.

But that was largely negated by Scott’s success in drumming up accusations of mismanagement at NationsBank and Bank of America, from which Sink retired a decade ago, and a GOP-voter wave.

Scott ran a primarily “paid-media” campaign that bypassed traditional news organizations, tied Sink to President Barack Obama and pledged to create 700,000 jobs through broad proposals to slash corporate taxes and regulation. His slogan: “Let’s get to work.”

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