NPR logo In Florida, Senate Seat Looks Like Rubio's, But Governor Race Is Dead Even

Election 2010

In Florida, Senate Seat Looks Like Rubio's, But Governor Race Is Dead Even

For the longest time, everyone following Florida politics seemed to be at the edge of their seats when it came to the Senate race.

No longer.  Now, the thing that they can't stop talking about is the race for governor.

Marco Rubio is surrounded by supporters as he makes a campaign appearance outside an early voting location on October 20, 2010 in Miami, Florida.  Marco Rubio is the frontrunner in the Florida Senate Race. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Marco Rubio is surrounded by supporters as he makes a campaign appearance outside an early voting location on October 20, 2010 in Miami, Florida.  Marco Rubio is the frontrunner in the Florida Senate Race.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

That was certainly my observation last week when I had the pleasure of visiting member station WFSU in Tallahassee and then heading over to speak to the folks at the Capital Tiger Bay Club, an organization of rabid political junkies who have just the right combination of political astuteness and wacky humor.

I'll get to the Florida politics stuff in a bit.  But first, here is just a sampling of some of the campaign buttons the Tiger Bay Clubbers made for the event, a ton of which were dumped on every table.

There were funny buttons (and at least one scary one) distributed at the Tiger Bay Club event.  Clockwise, starting at upper left: (1) "Charlie Crist High School/Home of the Fighting Chameleons;" (2) "I Will Clean Sinks" (picture of GOP gov. candidate Rick Scott, made to look like Mr. Clean, who is running against Alex Sink); (3) God help us all; (4) "The Meek [Kendrick Meek] May Inherit the Earth, But Not a Seat In the U.S. Senate;" (5) "Show Us Your Birth Certificate" (picture of Marco Rubio); and (6) "The Axis of Taxes" (pictures of Pelosi, Obama and Reid). hide caption

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The current story line for the Senate race is far different from where it had started.  Gov. Charlie Crist was the odds-on favorite to win the Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Mel Martinez.  When Martinez surprised everyone and resigned in August 2009, Crist appointed a close adviser, George LeMieux, to hold the seat temporarily ... with the assumption being that "temporarily" meant until Crist won the election.

But while Crist and the GOP establishment were measuring the drapes in the Senate, Marco Rubio, the former speaker of the state House and a strong conservative, was quickly lining up support from those who never liked Crist's brand of moderate politics, and who were further inflamed when it appeared that the governor actually "embraced" President Obama during a visit to Florida to sell his economic stimulus plan (see Junkie post, "The Danger of Looking for Amanda Hugginkiss," Feb. 11, 2010).

As complaints from the right about Crist escalated, Rubio's numbers shot up — so much that Crist felt his only chance for redemption was to quit the GOP and run as an independent.

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For awhile, some were wondering if the split between Crist and Rubio might enable the Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick Meek, to squeak in.  But now Crist seems to be seeking — and getting — much of his support from the "D" side of the political divide, including endorsements from former Democratic state chair Charlie Whitehead and ex-Rep. Robert Wexler (D).  California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, came on board for Crist as well this week, but the Governator has long since worn out his welcome with conservatives.  Rubio looks like a clear winner.

But it's dead even in the gubernatorial contest to succeed Crist, a crucial race given that Florida will gain congressional seats in the next census and whoever is governor and controls the state legislature will draw the lines.

State Attorney General Bill McCollum was expected to be the GOP nominee but found himself upended in the August primary by Rick Scott, a Tea Party-backed millionaire businessman.  Scott is a charismatic and energetic campaigner, but as CEO of Columbia/HCA health care company he faced accusations of Medicare fraud.  He was ousted by the company's board of directors in 1997, and Columbia/HCA eventually paid a $1.7 billion fine.

On the Democratic side, the candidate is Alex Sink, the state's elected Chief Financial Officer.  A Sunshine State News poll released Wednesday shows the two deadlocked at 45 percent each, with eight percent preferring "other" and two percent undecided.  Independents are leaning in Sink's direction but Republicans seem more motivated to vote.

In a debate Wednesday evening, reports the Miami Herald, Sink portrayed Scott "as untrustworthy and unprepared to lead the nation's fourth largest state," and Scott "repeatedly sought to link Sink to President Barack Obama and called her a failed fiscal watchdog."

David Colburn, writing in the Gainesville Sun, likens the Scott-Sink race to the 1988 Senate battle in Florida between Republican Connie Mack and Democrat Buddy MacKay.  A critical part of Mack's victory was his effective "Buddy, You're a Liberal" charge, and Colburn sees Scott emulating that tactic:

Scott has harkened back to Mack’s strategy by tagging Alex Sink with the “Liberal” label in his ads. And once again we find the public deeply troubled by the role and scope of the federal government. Scott lacks the name recognition that Mack enjoyed and the public integrity of Mack. But he has millions of dollars of his own wealth that he is spending to tar Sink as a liberal with Florida’s largely conservative voters. ...

Although she is not a liberal or a lifelong politician, Sink, like MacKay before her, has had to battle the image Floridians have of the national Democratic Party. For both MacKay and Sink, they found it extraordinarily difficult to escape the shadow of their national party. Sink has wisely chosen to highlight her business and banking background and her success in the private sector. Getting that message out, however, has not been easy with so many Floridians angry about the state of the economy and anxious about the future.

For more on the Florida and other key races in this year's midterms, see my Election Scorecard.