Politics & Policy

Senator Martinez?

Former HUD chief makes a run.

And then there were 17?

That’s the number of candidates who met last week’s filing deadline for the Senate election in Florida, where Democrat Bob Graham is retiring and both parties anticipate a close race.

Of the 17, eight are Republicans, but Daniel Webster is not one of them, a conservative state legislator. After indicating that he was going to run (he even had a website), Webster filed at the last minute for his state senate seat instead.

The reason for his decision can be summed up in two words: Mel Martinez.

Last November, Martinez was secretary of housing and urban development in the Bush administration. He appeared to have no interest in challenging Graham for the Senate, despite plenty of suggestions from GOP senators as well as prominent White House figures that he get in. Then Graham, following a disastrous run for his party’s presidential nomination, announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection–and Martinez joined the race to become his successor.

Although a number of candidates had a healthy head start, Martinez caught up quickly. He raised $1.7 million in the first quarter of this year–which is even more impressive than it looks because he didn’t hold a fundraiser until February. The latest poll, now about six weeks old, showed former congressman Bill McCollum leading with 27 percent, followed by Martinez at 18 percent, Webster at 8 percent, and Florida’s speaker of the House, Johnnie Byrd, at 6 percent.

With Webster out and Byrd failing to take flight, the contest probably will come down to Martinez and McCollum, who is well known around the state because he lost a race for the Senate against Bill Nelson four years ago. (This defeat to a colorless Democrat still irritates Republicans in Washington, who felt the election was winnable.) The GOP primary is scheduled for August 30, which awkwardly coincides with the first day of the Republican National Convention in New York.

Florida is one of the most demographically eclectic states in the union, with the panhandle resembling Alabama, the Orlando area often feeling Midwestern, and Miami dominated by Cuban Americans. There’s a significant military presence, both active-duty and retired, as well as a large number of senior citizens from the Northeast.

The state is competitive for both parties. After tilting slightly toward the Democrats in the 1990s (witness Jeb Bush’s defeat for governor in 1994), it has since moved a bit to the Right (Jeb’s 1998 victory followed by President Bush’s razor-thin victory in 2000 and Jeb’s comfortable reelection in 2002). Yet Democrats still experience success, as Nelson’s victory over McCollum demonstrates. President Bush will have a hard time winning reelection if he doesn’t carry the Sunshine State.

The Cuban-born Martinez thinks he can provide a boost. “I’ll energize the Cuban vote,” he says. “Four years ago, the Elián Gonzalez event provided tremendous intensity. The president never would have won Florida without it.”

Gonzalez was the Cuban boy who survived a hazardous trip on raft across the Florida Straits, even as it killed his mother. The Clinton administration decided to send him back to his father in Fidel Castro’s demesne rather than let him stay in the United States with relatives. The controversy electrified anti-Castro voters in Miami.

“How do you recapture that spirit?” asks Martinez, who co-chaired the Bush administration’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba before becoming a candidate. “Come to Miami with me.”

Ethnicity is only part of the appeal. Martinez claims he’s plainly the most electable candidate in the Republican field. He draws interest in Miami, but actually calls Orlando home, essentially giving him two bases in the state.

He’s also conservative–pro-life, pro-gun, and in favor of a constitutional amendment on marriage. “I would not have favored a marriage amendment but for that marriage-license nonsense in San Francisco,” he says. He also has criticized Jeb Bush’s recent move to give drivers licenses to illegal immigrants.

Because Martinez has worked as a trial lawyer–an almost demonic profession in the GOP imagination–McCollum has tried to portray his foe as a sleazy ambulance chaser. The characterization will have trouble sticking, as Martinez favors a variety of tort-reform initiatives that the trial-lawyer lobby finds repulsive. “I’m for a loser pays system,” he says–meaning that he believes plaintiffs who file frivolous lawsuits should pay the legal costs of the people they sue. “Almost nobody’s talking about that.”

He’s also attracted to “auto choice,” an innovative idea that would immediately cut auto-insurance rates for motorists who agree ahead of time not to sue for “pain and suffering.” Drivers who choose this type of coverage might save hundreds of dollars on their bills. “Auto choice is a brilliant idea,” says Martinez. “When you buy car insurance, you should be able to look at a menu and choose between a lobster and a hamburger.”

Martinez doesn’t shy from sharing his opinions. “I don’t want to come to Washington to be just another vote,” he says. “I want to lead on issues that are important.” He has indicated an interest in serving on the Foreign Relations Committee. “All too often, Republicans in the Senate’s foreign-policy leadership side with the Democrats. Dick Lugar [Republican of Indiana] and Joe Biden [Democrat of Delaware] are on the same page.”

He’s even more aggressive in describing the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination. Congressman Peter Deutsch is “obnoxious” and former education official Betty Castor is “viewed as a moderate but her campaign is now a wholly owned subsidiary of EMILY’s List.” He doesn’t believe former Miami-Dade mayor Alex Penelas stands a chance of surviving the primary. “The party is mad at him for not supporting Al Gore in the recount,” he says.

Martinez won’t say which of these three he’d prefer to have as an opponent, assuming he captures the GOP nod. “I’ll take whatever comes.”

That’s a wise approach, as he has almost no control over whom the Democrats nominate. Over the next three and a half months, Martinez will have enough trouble persuading Republicans to pick him.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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