Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Florida U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Florida U.S. Senate

August 10, 2010
84 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Open
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (South)

Outlook: Leans Republican

The race for the open U.S. Senate seat in Florida might be one of the marquee races of Election 2010. There are many layers of intrigue to the contest and when the entire picture is examined, Republicans are more likely than not to hold the seat, though the situation is less certain that it appeared as recently as a few months back.

It all began when freshman GOP Senator Mel Martinez announced he would not seek a second term in 2010. Upon that news, the state's rising star GOP Governor Charlie Crist surprised some by announcing he would try to replace Martinez in Washington, rather than take the more conventional approach of what looked like a fairly easy race for reelection. Back in 1998, then a little known Crist was defeated in a Senate race against a heavily favored Democrat incumbent. With Crist as the apparent GOP nominee in 2010, it looked like this would be a race that solidly favored Republican retention.

As the months went on though, the somewhat moderate Crist faced a serious primary challenge from Marco Rubio, a young Cuban-American politician, who had been Speaker of the State House, and was also considered a rising star. Rubio's challenge to Crist was from the right and he gradually gained endorsements and momentum. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that winning the GOP primary would be akin to actually being elected as the presumed Democrat candidate, Congressman Kendrick Meek, a liberal African-American from a heavily Democrat district in Miami would find it very hard to win a statewide general election.

During the course of all this though, Martinez announced he would be leaving office early, which allowed Governor Crist to select a replacement. As a candidate for the job, it would have appeared unseemly if Crist were to have selected himself, so he chose his former Chief of Staff George LeMieux to complete Martinez's term. The understanding was of course that LeMieux had no intention of running for the seat himself, but would serve as a placeholder for his mentor Crist.

As 2010 progressed, Rubio moved ahead of Crist in primary polling, and it appeared that the Governor's decision to run for the Senate would be for naught. While there was some talk that Rubio, who had gained a national following by this point, was "too far to the right", a lot of the general election polling actually showed he fared better against Meek than Crist. Both Republicans looked to be good bets for November, but Crist's job approval ratings had taken a tumble in the state under a difficult economy, and conservatives became more and more disenfranchised with the GOP Governor.

After a lengthy period of speculation regarding his options, which included dropping out of the primary contest, or maybe even running in the Democrat primary, Crist announced in April of this year, that he would forgo the September primary, and instead petition to run in the general election as an Independent candidate. Crist did not go to great lengths to claim this was for any great ideological reason, but it appeared a pretty transparent ploy to improve his chances of winning the election.

Since that move, most polls show that for now at least, it might have been quite shrewd as in a three way race, Crist has had at least a slight lead in most of them. On the surface, such a division between two GOP heavyweights should help a Democrat have a chance of sneaking through with a plurality of the vote, but instead, the Democrats running for the seat have slipped even further back to third place, with so many of them now lining up behind Crist. At this point, Crist's advisers and fundraising appear to be coming heavily from Democrats, as there appears to be no realistic possibility of the formal nominee of that party winning the race, but instead with party sympathizers hoping that a Senator Crist would choose to join or caucus with the Democrats on Capitol Hill. Republican party insiders have cut ties to Crist. His portait has been taken down at party headquarters and auctioned off, and both the men he made his Lt. Governor running-mate and interim U.S. Senator have spoken out against his move and declared support for Rubio.

In even worse news for Meek, who had been facing some primary challengers (and in a sidenote former New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith was a GOP contender for the seat as well at one point), was the late entrance into the race by Jeff Greene, a somewhat eccentric billionaire businessman whose only previous foray into politics was an unsuccessful primary campaign for a House seat in California as a Republican back in 1982. Greene certainly has had the checkbook though to threaten Meek and appears to have a slight lead over him among Democrat primary voters.

Greene has numerous vulnerabilities as a candidate, despite his wealth and status as an outsider, and if he defeats Meek, there is much talk that national and state party leaders may overlook him all together and put their eggs in the Crist basket. For now though, the White House and other Democrats are still committed to Meek. Rubio and Republicans probably have a vested interest in hoping that Meek finds a way to defeat Greene, in order to have the Democrat candidate as viable as possible (albeit likely in third place) as a buffer against a victory by the Independent Crist. If Meek is the Democrat nominee, he would almost certainly retain the loyalty of most of the state's African-American voters, and other Democrats nationally and in Florida might find it a little too risky to openly or clandestinely work against a black nominee for the U.S. Senate.

There is much consideration given to the theory that if Greene defeats Meek in the primary, black voters will then go heavily for Crist, which could help him put together a winning coalition. That is a distinct possibility, though Greene as the Democrat nominee might also have the effect of depressing turnout among black voters and other Democrats. That would then help the Republicans in this race and others in Florida, especially if Rubio is able to capitalize on his ethnicity with the state's significant Hispanic population.

The current polls are tending to show at the moment, that Crist is in first place and Rubio is in second, with either Democrat lagging way behind in third, and with a high number of undecided voters. In classifying this race as "Leans Republican", it is not completely saying it "Leans Rubio", though my hunch is that Rubio will ultimately win the election, but in saying that there is no realistic way the Democrat candidate can win, and if Crist is the victor, there is just no way of knowing for sure what he would do.

Almost everyone seems to think that Crist would be a Democrat vote for organizing the Senate, and in truth, he probably will go with whatever party is in the majority, in order to guarantee the most clout for himself. If Republicans do not win this race, the task of taking control of the Senate would be much more difficult, but as a lifelong Republican, it is not impossible to imagine that Crist, despite increasingly staking out positions to the left in this race, might just be engaged in a ruse all along, and if elected, would organize with the GOP. One cannot exactly call him a principled politician, and that could a significant factor that would help prevent him from winning this election and anything in the future as well.

In many ways, the dynamics of this three way contest resemble that of Florida's equally complicated race for Governor this year. Right now, Crist is being supported by a coalition of "soft" Democrats and Republican leaners alike, people who like the fact that he calls himself an "Independent." Another potential factor in the background of the race is that the man that Crist had running the state GOP has been indicted and that could come to taint the Governor as well. Crist has also tried to question Rubio's ethics as Speaker in Tallahasee.

The simple strategic key for victory for Rubio victory will be to make those who might be open to Republicans like Crist less. Right now, there are probably still many voters in the state who consider Crist to be a Republican. Rubio needs to continue to take Crist down some notches, and find a way to unify the GOP. Whether the state's Democrats gravitate to Crist or Meek or Greene or stay home, it will all be a net positive for Republicans, as long as it is the Democrats who are the ones who wind up divided at the end. It will be interesting to see who the eventual Democrat nominee focuses on attacking the most between Crist and Rubio. If it is Crist, that could naturally help Republicans, but if they seem to be allied with Crist and going after Rubio, that strategy could help unify Republicans.

With Crist campaigning as a nominal Democrat and with the possibility of his carrying the state's Democrat voters, the division in that party is likely to occur and work to Rubio's benefit. Crist probably has nowhere to go but down at this point, and he might find it tough to win much of the undecided voters, as they might be inclined to find all his political maneuvering a bit off putting. '

Republicans should hope for a Meek primary win for the Democrats, but even if that does not occur, if the party and it's nominee can give more GOP voters who have supported Crist in the past doubts about his character and his policy agenda, Marco Rubio will go to Washington, in a year that should favor his party, amid talk of his future as a national leader.

Rubio campaign link:


2010 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 2 D, 7 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 42 D, 30 R