Republicans furrowing their brows over the Florida Senate race should try smiling instead.
For weeks, the GOP approached Gov. Charlie Crist’s potential party-switch with something like dread. Bravado and (justified) indignation aside, Republican activists despaired in their heart of hearts that an independent bid by Crist could thwart Marco Rubio’s meteoric rise and jeopardize GOP control over the Senate seat.
And sure enough, when Crist abandoned the GOP at the end of April, conventional wisdom assumed he would split the Republican vote with Rubio, possibly allowing Democrat Kendrick Meek to sneak through.
Early polling suggested that Rubio was slipping to second place. Immediately before Crist bolted, Rasmussen had Rubio leading 37–30–22 over the governor and Meek, respectively (a March poll had staked Rubio to a 17-point lead). But in a Rasmussen survey taken after Crist’s split, the governor claimed a 38–34–17 advantage over Rubio and Meek.
This and similar surveys occasioned grave concern among conservative pundits. But things may not be quite as bad as Republicans think, as Crist may be drawing his support from Meek’s natural base, not Rubio’s. Exhibit A: a post-defection poll by Mason-Dixon, finding Crist leading Rubio and Meek by 38–32–19. Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker spoke to various Florida newspapers about the results, which were revealing: Coker found Crist drawing support from 48 percent of Democrats to Meek’s 36 percent, including 19 percent of black voters to 68 percent for Meek, who is African-American.
Calling Crist’s support among these Democrats “a proverbial house of cards,” Coker opined that it’s “very questionable whether or not these party and race numbers can hold up over the next six months unless the national Democratic party and its leaders (including President Barack Obama) throw Meek under the bus.” Worse, “when you see that more than half of Crist voters are Democrats, that’s a big red warning sign,” Coker observed. RealClearPolitics’ Jay Cost concurs, calling Crist’s lead “completely illusory” and his support among Democrats “unsustainable.”
Yet more than a month after Crist’s defection, Meek’s approval continues to plummet into Deepwater territory, while Rubio and Crist keep ascending, Rubio slightly faster:
The latest Rasmussen poll, taken on June 7, shows Rubio and Crist tied at 37, with Meek far behind at 15. Both frontrunners, Crist in particular, seem to climbing at the Democrat’s expense.
But will Meek remain in the doldrums for the remainder of the race? It’s hard to imagine.
Pennsylvania offers a cautionary tale for Crist backers: Like the Florida governor, Sen. Arlen Specter fled the GOP last year ahead of a divisive primary only to find himself ousted by a more liberal candidate who depicted himself as the “authentic” Democrat in the race. Across the aisle, Democrat-turned-Republican Parker Griffith lost his GOP primary in Alabama to a “real” Republican.
But if Democrats may eventually come home to Meek, Republicans have already flocked to Rubio, even more so than during the abortive primary. Mason-Dixon found Rubio enjoying the support of 70 percent of Republicans to Crist’s 18 percent, dwarfing even the large margins Rubio had been racking up before Crist’s independent streak ran riot.
The governor’s departure enabled Rubio to consolidate Republican support months before what would have been a late-August primary. With Jeb Bush and the National Republican Senatorial Committee supplying their funds and networks, Rubio’s campaign can train its fire on low-propensity Republican voters and independents alike.
And it’s on the independent field, as ever, that the battle will most likely be decided. Crist’s high-profile defection raised his favorability ratings by only four points and modestly boosted his support among independents, leading Coker to assert there’s “no guarantee that these nonaffiliated voters will stay with Crist over the long haul, as some of this support could be the result of temporary enthusiasm generated by his party switch.”
Rubio, nonetheless, shouldn’t be breaking out the champagne just yet. Had Crist dropped out or lost the primary outright, Rubio would unquestionably have been far better positioned than he currently is. The Florida Senate race will prove expensive and difficult, requiring careful strategy from Rubio to lump Crist and Meek together and keep their vote totals roughly equal.
But those following the race should beware the facile pronouncements of conventional media outlets so blinded by their obsession with internecine Republican conflict that they forget basic rules of politics.
– Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and Republican activist in San Diego. Contact him at email@example.com.