The race to succeed retiring Senator Mel Martinez just got very interesting, not only for Florida, but really for the entire nation.
The “contraction” of the Republican party has received a lot of media attention of late, particularly in light of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter’s switch to the Democratic party. The reasons for Specter’s switch were fairly obvious—he was a moderate Republican incumbent facing a primary challenge from a conservative and all signs were pointing to a primary loss. Specter’s move was the latest in a series of defeats for the Republican party, particularly the moderate wing within the party.
In 2006, Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chaffee lost his re-election bid after a tough primary challenge from a conservative Republican left him weakened in a general election. In fact, more than one of the seats lost in the House during the 2006 and 2008 elections could be directly attributed to the defeat of moderate Republicans in a primary—or the retirement of a moderate. So, how does this translate to Florida?
Charlie Crist is seen as a moderate, due in part to his support of Barack Obama’s stimulus package. But, even before the Obama position—for which he was roundly attacked on talk radio—Crist had staked out more moderate positions on many of the hot-button issues. He’s anti-abortion, but don’t try to engage him in a long conversation on the matter. He’s anti-gay marriage, but says it in a way that leaves no one completely offended. He won a GOP primary in 2006 against an opponent who had tried to define himself as the only “true conservative” in the race. In didn’t work in 2006, but could 2010 be a different story?
Marco Rubio, after all, is no Tom Gallagher. Sure, he never had a cameo appearance on “The Golden Girls”, but Rubio is young, telegenic and has always been a passionate “conservative”-something that Gallagher could only claim a late-in-life conversion to. And, Rubio has come out swinging. In his announcement, he took a step that many saw as unprecedented—attacking sitting Senators of his own party with whom he would have to caucus, assuming he won the primary and general election. Lashing out at Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, Rubio said that adding to their ranks was essentially the same as electing a Democrat.
While Crist’s popularity ratings have remained unusually high, his popularity among the rank-and-file Republican voters has suffered as of late, particularly after the onslaught he took from political
powerhouses like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity over his support of Obama’s stimulus package. Their opposition [Limbaugh's and Hannity's], when combined with the support already being offered Rubio by the conservative Club for Growth, could signal trouble for Crist in a Republican primary likely to be dominated by conservatives. While Crist’s political fortunes don’t necessarily concern many other than himself, Republicans do have to wonder how Rubio’s increasingly conservative message will sell in a state that voted for a Democratic President and a Democratic Senator in the most recent statewide elections.
At this point, despite the potential of a bloodbath, the Republicans still have the strongest field in the race. Both Democratic candidates currently in the race are facing their own hurdles. Both candidates are from South Florida, something that could prove challenging as they move to win over more moderate and conservative voters from central and northern Florida. Likewise, neither are well known throughout the state, something that will necessitate significant fundraising success to change. But, if bloody primaries offer a moderating state the choice between an outspoken conservative Republican and a more moderate Democrat, the Republican Party might have reason to worry.
Could one have imagined Jeb Bush’s Florida with a Democratic Governor, Democratic Attorney General and two Democratic US Senators? It may very well be possible…