Despite millions of dollars stacked against him, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek on Tuesday pulled off a decisive victory over his Democratic Senate primary foe, billionaire real estate developer Jeff Greene. It was also a win for the anxious Democratic Party establishment in a year when many voters are hostile to party insiders. But the thrill of victory may be short-lived, with Meek presenting more problems than promise for party strategists as they look ahead to an unusual three-way Senate contest in November.
The Florida seat—now held by retiring Republican Sen. George LeMieux—is critical to Democratic hopes to keep control of the Senate when the political winds are blowing against them. According to the Cook Political Report, Democrats hold 13 of the 20 Senate seats that have some chance of flipping parties this year. If Republicans are able to hold their seven, they will need to win 10 Democratic seats—or 11 out of the 13, if they lose in Florida. Democrats would like to pick up Florida in what otherwise may be a very bad year for them.
The prospect of Meek winning in November is considered slim by many observers. Polls show Meek lagging far behind two closely matched frontrunners: conservative GOP candidate Marco Rubio, a Tea Party star; and Gov. Charlie Crist, the popular, moderate Republican-turned-independent. "Crist or Rubio would have to self-destruct for Meek to have a chance at winning," says Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. [See who is contributing to Meek's campaign]
Barring any such self-destruction, Crist may be the Democrats' best bet on November's ballot. Officially, he hasn't committed to either party's caucus should he win; however, because of his broken ties with the GOP, he is expected to align himself with the Democrats. "The Republicans won't accept him," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Conservative Republicans can't stand Crist."
This presents a dilemma for Democrats. The political calculation (backed up by polls) is that support for Meek will come at Crist's expense, likely helping Rubio to win. According to Sabato, there's no question that the Obama administration would prefer Crist to Rubio. "But what do they do? The national party and the Obama White House don't want to hear criticism that they're not adequately supporting the only African-American, nonincumbent candidate that has a chance of getting into a major office [as a] governor or senator," Sabato says.
So far, the White House, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Florida Democratic Party, along with establishment figures such as former President Bill Clinton, continue to back Meek, denying any official support for Crist. Sabato anticipates that the party's unofficial stance may shift by late October. "The party has to give Meek every opportunity to do well," he says. "Then when he doesn't, and when the polls continue to show him in third place...then they can say, 'Oh, this is terrible. This is horrible. We did everything we could. It looks like now it's only Crist versus Rubio. Hint, hint.' "