By Toluse Olorunnipa
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Johnny Carson once described St. Petersburg as "God's waiting room."
The late-night comedian, who died in 2005, was making light of the city's concentration of senior citizens, a group that dominated the politics just as they were first in line for early-bird dinners. As recently as 2008, the results were reliably Republican — five straight mayors, a congressman in his 20th consecutive term, a popular hometown governor.
Carson wouldn't recognize the Gulf Coast city today. St. Petersburg has been infused with a younger, more racially diverse population that is transforming its politics and serves as a broader emblem of the shift taking hold in Florida, which is considered vital to winning presidential elections, with its 29 out of the 270 electoral college votes needed to prevail.
The migration, which includes Hispanic and black voters, is driving a "fundamental political realignment" that threatens Republicans' viability in areas where they once thrived, said Dustin Cable, a demographer at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service in Charlottesville.
St. Petersburg, whose population is about 245,000, elected a Democrat as mayor this month for the first time since 1975. A Democrat running for U.S. House is ahead in polls. And former governor Charlie Crist is criticizing his old Republican allies after switching parties and running for governor again, this time as a Democrat.
The demographic changes are similar to those playing out in other parts of Florida. Those shifts are threatening to turn a presidential swing state into one that's more reliably Democratic in the 2016 election and beyond.
"We either accept becoming a minority party due to demographic shifts, or we change our rules of engagement and become more successful in attracting the diverse population that's going to be exponentially increasing in our state," said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of Florida's Republican party who leads the Washington-based American Conservative Union, which promotes small government.