Governor Crist (R-FL) Runs for the Senate
After months of speculation, today it became official. Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) will not run for re-election in 2010, opting instead to run for the U.S. Senate. For those of us in the U.S. who are political junkies, this means that FL is about to get very interesting. Conventional wisdom says that this is bad news for Democrats. Retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) was very unpopular and Democrats were strongly favored to be able to oust him. When he announced his retirement in 2010 (almost before the cheering was over on election day last November!), this actually INCREASED GOP odds of retaining the seat–that’s how disliked Martinez was. Democrats have a couple of good candidates running for the seat: State Sen. Dan Gelber (D-FL) is arguably the more progressive, but he has less name recognition and has not been doing well at fundraising and early campaigning. On the other hand, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meeks (D-FL) has REALLY been fundraising and has had help from former Pres. Bill Clinton (D) (extremely well liked in FL) and by the head of Obama’s election team in FL. So, Meeks is on track to become the first African-American nominee for the U.S. Senate from FL.
But Gov. Crist is a popular governor (despite a somewhat mixed record of actual accomplishments; he inherited a mess from JEB Bush) and could be tough for Meeks or any other Democrat to beat. That’s the conventional wisdom. But here’s where the GOP infighting is helping. Conservative Republicans, the base voters who come out in a primary, DON’T like Crist. He got rid of the no-paper touchscreen voting machines that let the GOP keep stealing elections, replacing them with scanners which leave a paper trail. He denied the “ACORN is stealing the election for Obama” nonsense. He held open early voting hours to let the huge crowds last fall vote in full–something the GOP voter suppression folks didn’t like. He forced the legislature to stop their latest attempt to disenfranchise voters. He accepted the Obama stimulus money for the money-hungry state and actually embraced Pres. Obama in public. So, the GOP base is likely to back a hard right conservative like Rep. Mario Rubio (R-FL). And Michael Steel, Chair of the RNC, had promised to cut off any national funds to governors who took the stimulus money, although NRSC Chair John Cornyn has other ideas.
I think Crist will win the Republican primary. But he might get beat up in the process (and more exposes of him as a closeted gay man–something the base hates–keeps surfacing) and this could make it a close race in the general election. Meeks or Gelber will still have a tough fight, but the Crist is not the automatic shoe-in that conventional wisdom believes.
And, Crist’s bailing on the governor’s mansion means that Democrats now have a great shot in that race. Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink (D-FL) should now become the (narrow) favorite to win here, making her Florida’s first female governor. (Can that be true? Sheesh! Even Kentucky has had one female governor! My former home state is supposed to be more progressive than my current adopted home state, but I guess not.) UPDATE: One day after Crist announced his run for the Senate, Florida CFO (FL’s version of a state treasurer) Alex Sink(D) announced her run for governor! She will face unpopular State AG Bill McCollum (R). And, with luck, November of 2010 could see Florida with its first African-American senator and its first woman governor and come into the 21st C.
The governor’s race is ultimately more important. Crist is a relatively moderate Republican and will only be one of 100 votes in the senate if he wins. The Dems will almost assuredly retain a large Senate majority and Crist could even be a crossover vote on environmental issues. And this seems to end his presidential hopes. 2008 was a fluke: Governors are elected to the White House FAR more often than Senators. Also, if Crist does not have to move too far to the right to win the Senate seat, and if he isn’t made to tow the rightwing line IN the Senate, then he might become a MODERATE Republican Senator–currently an extremely rare bird. That might signal a return to a much healthier U.S. politics.
Meanwhile a Democratic FL Gov. would help with redistricting after the 2010 U.S. Census. This is big, especially since FL is likely to end up with 1 or even 2 additional U.S. House seats due to population increases. Democrats outnumber Republicans in FL (though not by huge numbers), yet Republicans have SUPER-majorities in both houses of the state legislature and the majority of the U.S. Congressional delegation. Why? Because of “gerrymandered” districts–districts carved out to make it easier for one party rather than the other. (Another reason why the Republican base is unhappy with Crist is that he has been open to the efforts of clean govt. types to create an independent commission for redistricting.) A Democratic governor like Alex Sink would enable districts that more fairly represented the demographic and political make-up of the state. (I hope she would still back the fair districts commission, taking the politics out of redistricting. At any rate, Democrats should not engage in “reverse gerrymandering” to get revenge on FL Republicans. This kind of political poison on both sides undermines confidence in government, in the political system, and hurts the state residence.) So, the governor’s race could affect FL politics for the next 10 years. If Sink wins, FL’s slow turn from Republican to Democratic could speed up considerably. I think Floridians and national Republicans would consider that a huge win even if the conventional wisdom is correct and Crist is unstoppable in his race for the Senate.
There could be two game-changing recruiting efforts–one for Democrats and one for Republicans. For the GOP: Fmr. Gov. JEB Bush (R-FL), younger brother of W, could conceivably run for Gov. again. FL law prevents more than 2 CONSECUTIVE terms as gov., but does not limit one to ONLY two terms, period. The Republicans tried and failed to recruit him for a senate run. But if the GOP hardliners convinced him to run again for the Governor’s mansion, he would be VERY hard to beat. And if they convinced him to be their champion against Crist for a senate run, after all, we could see a battle of titans (and a battle between the moderate-conservative wing and the far-right wing of the GOP) in the senate primary.
The Democrats could try similarly recruiting Bob Graham (D-FL), popular 2 term governor and later a popular Senator. (If Al Gore had chosen Graham as his VP running mate in 2000, as so many urged, it might have made all the difference. If Howard Dean (D-VT) had won the Democratic nomination in ’04, I was urging picking Graham as VP. It would have been a much stronger ticket against Bush/Cheney than Kerry/Edwards was.) I don’t think Graham wants to be governor, again, and I think Alex Sink is the strong favorite for governor, now. But if Graham were to think about getting his old Senate job back, he would be a huge challenge for Crist. FL Dems could persuade Gelber and Meeks to step back for Graham, sparing him a hard primary and leaving Democrats fresh and united to take on the winner (probably Crist) of a what looks to be, with or without JEB Bush, a very nasty and bruising Republican primary. Kendrick Meeks wants to make history, but FL’s other U.S. Senator, Bill Nelson (D-FL) will be 70 when up for re-election in 2012 and has talked about retiring. An open seat, with a united Democratic front in ’12, the help of a grateful Graham (provided Graham isn’t enjoying retirment and WANTS his old senate seat back), and a tailwind behind Obama’s reelection campaign could make it easier for Meeks to win the senate in 2012.
Now, were I a gambler (which I am not), I would wager against EITHER JEB Bush or Bob Graham getting into either the FL gubanatorial or senate race in 2010. But there is no question that if either were, it would constitute a game-changing recruitment.
Whatever happens, FL in 2010 will be fascinating for those of us who are politics junkies.
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