Former housing secretary Mel Martinez won the Republican nomination for Senate tonight in Florida, defeating former congressman Bill McCollum in what may have been this year’s hardest-fought GOP primary. With 92 percent of the unofficial returns in, Martinez has captured 45 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for McCollum.
”We won in every part of the state,” says Jennifer Coxe, the communications chief for Martinez. “It speaks volumes about how well he’ll do in the general election.”
Martinez will fly to New York on Wednesday, and plans are already underway to have him speak at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
The result is a triumph for the White House–and not just because it still has a slot to fill in the convention schedule. Top figures in the Bush administration encouraged Martinez to quit the Cabinet and make a run for the Senate. For a while, Martinez demurred. When Democratic senator Bob Graham announced his retirement last fall, however, Martinez threw his hat in the ring. He was criticized for what was perceived to be a late entry, but he immediately began a whirlwind cash-raising campaign and set course for tonight’s win.
His main opponent, McCollum, started out with statewide name recognition, mostly because he had run for the Senate four years earlier. Although George W. Bush just barely carried Florida in 2000, McCollum came up short in his election against Bill Nelson.
Many Republicans thought that McCollum deserved another opportunity to become a senator–but others were put off by what they considered a lackluster campaign against a beatable Democrat. They weren’t about to let another open seat slip away from them. And so they started looking at other options.
Martinez possessed many of the qualities they were seeking: conservatism, charisma, and a great personal story. As a boy, he escaped from Castro’s Cuba; as a man, he became a GOP leader in Orlando and went on to serve in the Bush administration.
Republican political strategists thought they saw a man who could help them take over Graham’s seat. They were also aware that he might aid the reelection of President Bush in a way that no other candidate could. Four years ago, Bush won Florida by a few hundred votes–and needed more than 80 percent of the Cuban-American vote to do it. As memories of the Elian Gonzalez controversy faded, however, Bush’s backing among Cuban Americans slipped. One recent poll showed that about two-thirds of the state’s Cubans were willing to cast their ballots for him this year. That’s very good by most standards, but also a level of support that would have led to defeat in 2000.
Will Mel Martinez drive up turnout among Cuban Americans as well as increase their willingness to get behind the president? That’s the prevailing belief among Washington Republicans–and it’s a view a lot of Florida’s primary voters seem to share.
McCollum took advantage of his high name recognition for months, and led the polls consistently until a week or two ago. And then Martinez pulled ahead in the final days, his surge coming at exactly the right moment.
“We took care of the grassroots first, marshaled our resources, and introduced Mel to the voters,” says Coxe. “When people meet Mel, there’s a great connection. They really like him.”
Florida voters–and not just Republicans–will have another chance to express their fondness on November 2, when he faces Democratic nominee Betty Castor in the general election.