For now, advantage Crist. There is no incumbent in the scramble to replace retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R), but Crist might as well be: The popular governor boasts near-universal name recognition and a 64 percent approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac poll released April 16.
Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, the only other GOP candidate in the fight so far, is unknown to 78 percent of Quinnipiac respondents, and state party officials are already trying to show him the door. When matched against Crist and two other potential Republican challengers in the Quinnipiac poll, Rubio only garners 8 percent, compared to Crist’s 54 percent.
Rubio would have his hands full in fatter times, but the recession promises to make things even tougher for him and other potential GOP candidates. Traditional political donors in Florida have been ravaged by the downturn: The struggling real estate industry accounted for more than $15 million in campaign contributions in the 2008 election cycle, making it the second most politically active industry in the state after law firms. With five open seats statewide next year, there will likely be less money to spread around among both parties.
“This is a state that costs a lot of money to run in, and candidates are going to be fighting over scarce dollars because a lot of well-to-do people have been hit badly,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
Florida Senate races have ranked among the nation’s most expensive in recent years. Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor spent a combined $24 million in their 2004 slugfest, while Sen. Bill Nelson (D) spent $16 million in 2006 defeating former Rep. Katherine Harris (R), who spent $9 million.
The scarcity of campaign funds and Crist’s star power present an even bigger problem for Democrats because their bench is so thin. The party has been out of power in the state legislature for 13 years, and Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion since 1999, leaving the Democrats with few marquee political brands still in the game. Heavy hitters like Castor, 68, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, 70, and former state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, 66, have taken their shots or are now happily employed in the private sector.
“Our bench is either retired or not quite ready for prime time,” said Bob Buckhorn, a Tampa-based Democratic strategist.
Eighty-two percent of voters in the Quinnipiac poll said they didn’t know enough about Meek, the Democratic front-runner, to form an opinion, while 91 percent said the same of state Sen. Dan Gelber (D), who has also thrown his hat in the ring.
“Meek is a virtual unknown outside his congressional district, and Charlie is a popular known,” said Tampa-based GOP strategist Adam Goodman. “He’s going to have to raise a lot of money to make that up.”
Meek is off to a fast start. Despite the economic downturn, his campaign hauled in $1.5 million in the first quarter of 2009 with help from former President Bill Clinton. Those numbers amid a forbidding fundraising landscape are helping Meek box potential primary rivals out of the race.
“Those fundraising figures raise a lot of eyebrows,” Goodman said. “Other rumored primary candidacies started to dry up after they were announced.”
Crist may lead Meek by 55 percent to 24 percent in a Mason-Dixon poll released Tuesday, but former Sen. Bob Graham (D) told NationalJournal.com that Meek’s low name-recognition numbers shouldn’t have anyone betting against him quite yet.
“When I was running for governor, I had less than 3 percent name recognition as late as August 1977,” Graham said. Voters sent him to Tallahassee 15 months later.
If Meek can get voters to like him, he may not need to win to make his 2010 run worthwhile. In a state that puts a premium on name recognition, there’s a history of politicians capitalizing on losing campaigns to raise their profiles and come back to win later on. Jeb Bush (R) lost a close gubernatorial race in 1994, but bounced back four years later to win two terms. Former Rep. Bill McCollum (R) lost in his 2000 Senate bid but was elected attorney general in 2006 and is now vying for the governor’s mansion. Crist himself, now running his fifth statewide campaign, followed the same pattern.
“The best campaign he ever ran was the one he lost in 1998 against Bob Graham,” Goodman said of Crist’s first, failed Senate bid. “He ran a very upbeat, forward-looking campaign, and even in defeat the branding that came out of that launched him to where he is now.”