A year ago, most observers expected that Florida would produce nothing more exciting than some rather sleepy midterm election races in 2010. Quasi-deified Republican governor Charlie Crist was guaranteed a second term in Tallahassee. The House delegation looked relatively stable. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) might have had a mildly competitive race on his hands, but political junkies were preparing to look elsewhere for their fix. Then things changed. Big time.
It started with Martinez’s abrupt resignation from the Senate, causing Crist to forgo re-election in order to pursue the vacant seat – perhaps hoping to add some national security credentials to his résumé to strengthen a future White House bid. Now the Sunshine State seems set to host an open and hotly contested gubernatorial race. Rock star Crist, however, would waltz into the Senate, right? Wrong.
When former Florida State House of Representatives Speaker Marco Rubio first announced that he would challenge Crist in the GOP primary, most laughed. Surely, skeptics insisted, he’d rather run for attorney general or for Mario Diaz-Balart’s House seat. Or perhaps he was embarking on this quixotic adventure to raise his statewide name recognition for a future bid. Rubio surely couldn’t match Crist’s popularity or fundraising prowess. Consequently, the political chattering class initially derided Rubio’s candidacy.
Crist has always been a smooth political operator and has cultivated a bipartisan image, which tends to suit him well in general elections.
Yet in this increasingly competitive primary, the opposite has been true. With Republicans seeking a solid conservative candidate, Crist’s (literal and figurative) embracement of President Obama and the stimulus package began to damage him in the eyes of state Republicans.
Meanwhile, Rubio has played up his contrast with the governor, attacking Crist hard from the right and attracting national accolades from the likes of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and the Conservative Political Action Committee. Currently, Rubio is leading Crist, and recent margins have been as large as 35 points. In fact, Crist is so badly wounded by allegations of being a RINO (Republican in name only) that rumors abound that he will leave the GOP to seek the Senate seat as an independent, though Crist staffers continue to deny that possibility. As it stands now, Crist needs a serious momentum change by Florida’s August primary.
Crist should be extremely disheartened by Gov. Rick Perry’s recent win over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in the Texas GOP gubernatorial primary. Crist’s politics are rather similar to Hutchison’s, and the Florida narrative strongly relates to Texas’, wherein primary Republicans walloped a candidate who strayed even a tad from the party’s right flank. A Crist comeback victory or a Rubio Goliath-slaying will speak volumes as to the direction the national GOP heads in the coming years.
Frankly, despite a bruising GOP Senate primary, Democrats have virtually no chance of picking up this seat. Their likely nominee, Rep. Kendrick Meek, is largely unknown and perceived as far too liberal for a moderately red Florida.
Instead, they stand a decent shot at picking up the governor’s mansion with their popular and competitive nominee, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. Sink benefits from a fractured GOP primary between the bland, front-runner Bill McCollum, the current state attorney general, and Paula Dockery, a plucky state senator. Sink’s fundraising capabilities and statewide elected experience are tremendous boons to her candidacy, while her past as a bank executive is a definite liability.
The likely McCollum-Sink race will be a barnburner: easily one of the most expensive, bloody and down-to-the-wire races of the cycle. The race is especially significant considering the new governor’s ability to exercise great influence over the post-census state legislative and congressional redistricting processes, as Florida could gain more House seats. Therefore, the outcome of this election will resonate profoundly on the national level.
Due to GOP domination of the district-drawing process in the past, Florida’s House delegation will not be characterized by too many wild races, but expect newer Democrats like Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, State Rep. Ron Klein and Rep. Alan Grayson to face serious challenges in their quests to return to the Capitol in 2011. Grayson is especially vulnerable, as his Orlando-area eighth district tilts conservative – a fact virtually irreconcilable with Grayson’s extremist, left-wing foaming at the mouth. A few GOP House pickups would not be anything too surprising.
Why should we care about Florida? After all, aren’t these races merely phenomena of parochial politics? In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Florida is a state that is phenomenally difficult to read. Combining Southern good ol’ boys, African-American urban communities, a large Jewish population, an intense and diverse Hispanic influence and hordes of retirees, Florida’s multifaceted political terrain makes it the “swingiest” of all swing states. No state serves as more apt a microcosm of the current status, and future, of American partisan politics than the Sunshine State.
Sam Dulik is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at [email protected] Quorum Call appears every other Tuesday.