Ah, Florida: Scarface, Disney, Golden Girls, Seinfeld’s parents, Tiger, Elian, Crockett, Tubbs, sugar, swamps, spring training, LMFAO, oranges, chads, (Jimmy) Buffett, Marino, Lebron and so much more, including one of the most exciting Senate races in the country this cycle, a three-way match up between conservative wonder boy Marco Rubio, the bronzed chameleon Charlie Crist and one of two democratic contenders, the highway patrol congressman, Kendrick Meek, and a billionaire named Jeff Greene, whose Morrocan love den was once featured in Vanity Fair.
Beyond the obvious, here are five reasons the Sunshine State will be worth watching this year:
1. In most elections there is a battle for the middle, leading to bland nothingisms on the stump. But since this race will be a three way race, it is likely that each candidate will have a different route to victory. Rubio will need to hold the Republican vote, capture some of the anti-incumbent dissatisfaction, and get huge voter turnout at the polls. If Meek wins the primary, he can run a similar race, focused mainly on denying Crist the 30 to 45 percent of the Democratic vote the governor needs to win. Crist’s job will be to convince Floridians that party labels are as outmoded as Capitol building spittoons. He will be trying to hold as much as a quarter of the Republican vote, while grabbing a chunk of the Democratic base. If Greene wins the primary, he will likely spend great gobs of his fortune on television in a so-far less-than-successful attempt to tamp down voter skepticism of a man called the “meltdown mogul” by the Wall Street Journal who decorated his Beverly Hills home with “two huge erotic paintings” and a “dark metal rendering of a dollar bill.”
2. The race is already creating great tensions within the Democratic establishment. In recent months, three key Democratic aides have signed on to the Crist campaign: Josh Isay, a former chief of staff to Democratic Senate boss Chuck Schumer; Eric Johnson, the former chief of staff to onetime Florida Rep. Eric Wexler; and Democratic pollster Keith Frederick, who also has worked for the Florida Education Association, Unite Here and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner. Crist has not said whether or not he will caucus with Democrats, but the fact that Crist attracted such high profile talent suggests Senate leaders want to encourage the possibility. As political handicapper Charlie Cook put it, rather diplomatically, “The conventional wisdom is that Isay would not have taken on Crist as a client if there were strong objections from the Democratic Senate Leadership.”
3. This has predictably infuriated allies of Meek, who have been calling for a much more vocal and direct support from President Obama. “Come on down and show me that you mean it,” Alcee Hastings, a Florida congressman and Meek booster, told me Tuesday. “I need to see him say it.” Hastings called the recent image of Obama walking Pensacola’s white sand beaches in shirtsleeves with Crist, “this haunting picture.” In response, the White House has restated Obama’s Meek endorsement and Rahm Emanuel has scheduled a fundraiser on Meek’s behalf. But that is not enough for supporters like Hastings, who have threatened to withhold campaign aide from Obama in 2012 if the president does not do more. Some suspect history may be at work here as well: In 2008, relations between Meek and the Obama team were not so good after Meek decided to endorse Hillary Clinton.
4. The characters are larger than life. The Greene biography, as has been noted, does not exactly scream Democratic candidate for Senate. (He once offered a place to live to Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and he previously ran for office in California as a Republican.) Crist, who just two years ago was a campaign prop on John McCain’s campaign, is boldly remaking himself in ways that could even shock Mitt Romney’s political hands. He recently reversed his position on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He vetoed a bill requiring women see ultrasounds before abortions, and scrubbed some pro-life language from his website. And he vetoed a Republican bill that linked teacher pay to student test scores.
5. Scandal lurks around every corner. Rubio, who may be the GOP’s only chance to hold the seat, is under federal investigation for his use of party-issued credit cards, according to the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times. (The Rubio camp says their candidate has not been contacted.) Crist is tied in with the same scandal indirectly because the party was run by one of his hand-picked allies. Meek meanwhile is dealing with a scandal in his own backyard. As the Miami Herald reported, “As U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek championed a proposed biopharmaceutical complex for Liberty City in 2003, his Miami chief of staff received $13,000 from the project’s developer to help the aide buy a house, newly released police records show.” (All of the campaigns deny any cause for concern, at least for their own candidates.) As for Greene, did I mention that he built himself a Moroccan love den?
UPDATE: A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday had good news for Greene and bad news for Meek. With 34 percent undecided and a majority of Democrats saying they may change their vote, Greene leads Meek 33 to 23 percent. The same poll, in June, found that Meek had 29 percent support compared with Greene’s 27 percent.