Republicans in Washington are increasingly fidgety about developments in the U.S. Senate race in Florida. The bad news is that Republican consultants are whispering that the contest between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist could split the GOP vote, handing the seat to Democrat Kendrick Meek. The Florida seat is must-win for Republicans if they are to have any hope of a Senate majority in the fall.
The good news, Republican consultants tell me, is that the GOP money for Gov. Crist that helped him amass a big campaign war chest is drying up now that he is running as an independent. On the campaign trail, Mr. Crist is being described in the state media as a “lonely guy.” As even the candidate himself acknowledges, many of his most fervent check writers have turned their backs on his renegade Senate campaign.
But Mr. Crist may be far from done. Officials inside the Rubio campaign have a new worry — that Mr. Crist may experience, as one put it, a “big bump in the polls” if he is perceived as managing the Gulf oil spill debacle professionally and skillfully. At the same time, the left is rediscovering Mr. Meek, who just a few months ago was believed to have little chance in a big Republican year. Mr. Meek was such an afterthought that even he admits that he had to remind the media “there is still a Democrat in this race.” In the general election race in November, Mr. Crist currently enjoys a slight lead, while Mr. Meek is a distant third with 20%, but that could change in a hurry. This is a state, after all, that went for Barack Obama in 2008, where Democrats have a voter-registration advantage of half a million, and where Democrats won three of the last four Senate races.
Mr. Meek first won his congressional seat in a poor area of Miami after his mom, the first black to be elected to Congress since Reconstruction, retired. He is young, good looking, and has been a reliable liberal vote and an unapologetic supporter of the Obama agenda. He says the Obama connection will be a special asset in a race against Messrs. Rubio and Crist, whom he calls “Republican-right and Republican-lite.” But Mr. Meek still has a hurdle to clear before he can claim his party’s nomination — a primary against Jeff Greene, a wealthy businessman who made millions betting against the housing bubble and now is pouring the proceeds into his pursuit of a Senate seat.
Assuming Mr. Meek is the nominee, the big question his supporters are asking is the same one worried Republicans are asking: Does Mr. Crist take more votes from Democrats or Republicans? Mr. Crist avidly sought the AFL-CIO endorsement, which may explain his veto several weeks ago of a common-sense teacher tenure reform bill. But Mr. Meek got the nod (and the union money sure to follow) and has followed up by continuing to attack Mr. Crist as a Johnny-come-lately liberal on issues like oil-drilling and stimulus spending.
For his part, Mr. Rubio almost overnight has become the darling of conservatives around the country and is even talked about as a 2012 presidential candidate. But first he must prevail in an increasingly treacherous Florida Senate race. On their side, Democrats see Florida as a test of their hope that GOP intraparty squabbling will be the factor that ultimately allows many vulnerable Democrats to survive a tough year.
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