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?
Organization, turnout and money will be the key factors, and Meek seems the weakest of the three candidates in these categories. And in Florida, there is the issue of race, sometimes hidden by claims that a candidate is inexperienced. "There are those who would say that a black person who has never won a statewide race will never get enough support," remarked one longtime observer of Florida politics who asked not to be named. "In this state, we don't have a very good track record of recognizing the accomplishments of blacks," adds Jacksonville's Hurst.
In the jumble of anti-incumbent sentiment, Tea Party anger and economic worry, commitment to political parties seems to be weakening. Party identification will be blurred in Florida's senate race, and many of the uncertainties of this blurring have national implications.
Will the Republican Party be taken over by its most extreme voices? Has it already? How comfortable are many Republicans with, say, the sometimes peculiar libertarianism of Kentucky-primary victor Rand Paul, who defeated Republican establishment favorite Trey Grayson? (Paul has even questioned the validity of rights established by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.) And what do Republican "moderates" make of the fact that earlier this month, Utah's very conservative Senator Bob Bennett was not considered conservative enough and was voted out of the primary, to the cheers of Tea Party delegates? Will politically discomfited Republicans flee the party in large numbers, at least temporarily, if offered an alternative?
And will Democrats, fearful of growing Tea Party political strength at the national level, choose to protect the "establishment," even if that means voting for Republicans? Some analysts think that President Obama's support for Meek will be weak because he has already concluded that Meek cannot win. Obama is anxious to keep the Senate seat out of Republican hands, and Crist would be an independent — at least nominally. Shortly after Crist announced his decision to run as an independent, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid telephoned him officially to offer congratulations.
Charles Cobb Jr. is senior analyst for All Africa. His latest book is On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail.