Political prognosticators anxiously observing tea leaves for a November fix have a habit of relying on conventional wisdom, even when there’s a breeze blowing in the other direction. This could be the case with most observers’ wholesale dismissal of Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-FL), now Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, as a solid contender for what is being upheld as, arguably, the most interesting midterm race in recent electoral memory.
There’s good reason to watch. It’s a dramatic three way race in which the state’s popular Governor, in his forgone bid to Washington as a Republican, thumbs his nose at the two party system and runs as an independent. The GOP nominee rides the wave of Tea Party enthusiasm, a first generation Cubana transformed into overnight celebrity of the conservative body politic. And, then there’s four-term Miami-Dade Congressman Meek, the good son who kept his family political brand intact since his mother’s retirement from Congress in 2002. Not unnoticed is the convergence of classic racial rivalry.
Most polls point to Marco Rubio (R). Rasmussen has him edging ahead 10 points; Public Policy Polling by 8; the Mason-Dixon survey by 5. On average Rubio is ahead by 2.5%. Gov. Charlie Crist (I) maintains a steady second – ahead by 7 points in the Quinnipiac poll and by 5 according to the St. Petersburg Times. A recent, and rather optimistic, internal poll shows Crist at 35, Rubio at 34 and Meek trailing at 17.
Yet, Crist can’t manage that lead unless he siphons Democratic voters away from Meek, which indicates a Battle of the Bases into November. Crist has only a narrow lead, 42% to 37%, over Meek among Democrats. And while some observers are quick to point out that Crist will dominate the Independent vote, it’s worth noting that only 18% of the state’s electorate identifies as non-partisan. Still, Meek has issues, too, holding support from only 9% of the Independent electorate, compared to 31 for Rubio and 42 for Crist.
Folks want to count Meek out, ignoring his warp speed catch up in the remaining several weeks of the Democratic primary, behind by 20% at one point only to race from behind and destroy billionaire Jeff Greene handily with that same spread. Sifting through the numbers, there are bright spots for Meek. Once the Congressman runs ads throughout Florida, Democratic voters could get energized upon recognition of their skin in the game, bothered by the prospect of a tea party candidate representing the Sunshine State.
The cats of conventional wisdom inside and outside the Beltway are, in typical fashion, certain to count out the influence of Black voters in Florida. Yet, nearly 18% of the state’s population is African American, and it’s the main reason Democrats enjoy a voter registration edge over Republicans in Florida. In 2008, Black voter registration in Florida increased by 13%, offering Dems a 2-to-1 registration advantage over the state GOP. As Meek unleashes ads throughout the state (the strength of which will be dependent on former rival Jeff Greene’s generosity, national party help and repeated backing from a once-reluctant White House), watch for signs of Obama-like enthusiasm from Florida’s Black electorate. The Meek camp can potentially tap into massive Black voter surge come election day – though, for now, it would be smart to underplay it in a state as Southern and racially polarized.
And, true that one should pay close attention to similar enthusiasm for Rubio from the a pronounced Latino – and very Cuban – electorate in Florida: 22% of the state’s population is Latino. That said, there could be sharp differences in support based not only on Rubio’s affiliation with a party considered anti-immigrant, but also between Whiter Latinos and the thick population of Latinos and other Caribbean immigrants of clear African descent who could lean Meek.
In essence, this race isn’t over. Meek may pull few Republicans, but he’s got an edge with the Democratic voter registration. He may pull few Independents, but there are only a few of those to count on. Albeit Crist could display executive gravitas during hurricane season, giving him points in the crisis management column, it’s still hard for him – and Rubio – to shed the former Republican image, on full display with Newt Gingrich endorsements and others aligned with the party’s discomforting extremist element. Plus, can Democratic voters count on the notoriously shifty Crist to stay Independent? The chance he’ll either switch back to his old party or, at the least, caucus with them in the Senate is too significant.
“He has really campaigned hard and has been able to split his time between Washington and Florida while waging a tough campaign,” says Burke. “He has missed almost no vote in the House while campaigning and can often been seen off the House floor on his cell phone between votes”
“People view him as a ‘real person’ as compared to his opponents. Though he is the son of a politician he worked for a living and was a highway patrol officer — he held a real job and voters could relate to him more.”
A Meek win is still within the realm of possibility.