Party Lines Blur in the Florida Senate Race

The choice that voters make among a black Democrat, a Hispanic Republican and a newly independent white candidate could have national implications.

Charlie Crist and Kendrick Meek (Getty)

The national struggle for the soul of the Republican Party has now moved to Florida’s Senate race. And the battleground reveals with great clarity the mounting conflict between party loyalty, ideology and ambition.

This April, Florida’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist, found himself unexpectedly trailing former Republican House Speaker Marco Rubio for his party’s nomination as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. So Crist quit the Republican primary and announced that he would seek the Senate seat as an independent. His decision turned the November general election into a three-man race involving Crist; Rubio, a Cuban-American; and Rep. Kendrick Meek, widely thought to have a lock on the Democratic Party nomination.

Meek, an African American, is a four-term member of the House of Representatives. If he wins in November, he will become the first black U.S. senator from Florida — and the first from the South since Reconstruction.

On the surface, Crist’s decision should have improved Meek’s chances. “It’s a three-man race, making 34 percent the key number in the general election, as opposed to 51 percent,” says former Jacksonville city councilman and author Rodney Hurst.

But despite the AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Meek last weekend, important parts of the Democratic Party’s state machinery are leaning toward Crist. The Florida Teachers Union has endorsed both Meek and Crist, an astonishing shift for a union that was regularly at war with former Gov. Jeb Bush. Influential Palm Beach Democratic Party leader Andre Fladell told a columnist, “We’ve expressed to Crist directly that the door is open for discussion, that our leadership is very undecided right now, and we have no commitment to anyone.”

Crist won 18 percent of the black vote in 2006. But while Meek angered many black voters with his support of Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama, Meek will likely get overwhelming support from African Americans and New Deal liberals. What is not clear is how much support he will get in conservative northeast Florida, in the “condo communities” in the south and from non-Cuban Hispanics.

Many Democrats are nervous. Meek has been campaigning since January 2009 but is trailing badly both Crist and Rubio, who are statistically neck-and-neck. Crist is making a hard charge at Meek’s union base, so a huge question for Meek is, Will Crist attract substantial numbers of Democratic voters?