Thursday, June 25, 2009

Florida Fault Line

The Republican primary race for the open senate seat in 2010 is drawing national attention as well as a dividing line between the factions of the party.

The primary pits moderate Gov. Charlie Crist against the more conservative former state House speaker Marco Rubio. A big issue will be that Crist broke from the party line on a key issue in the last few months, when he endorsed the stimulus bill and even appeared with President Obama to promote it.

Crist has a big lead in all the polls — both for the primary and in the general election in this big perennial swing state — and was actively recruited and then endorsed right out of the gate by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. As NRSC chairman Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has explained, Crist is a candidate who can not only win, but also save the party a lot of money that could now be spent elsewhere.

But while most of the GOP’s elected base has come out for Rubio, some conservatives aren’t following along. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who has actively advocated for an ideologically purer GOP, has endorsed Rubio. And Rubio has boasted of straw poll victories among Republican activists in Florida, showing there does exist a base of opposition to Crist and support for a stronger conservative.

Mike Huckabee has also come out for Rubio, returning the favor from when Rubio himself endorsed Huckabee during the 2008 primaries: “Let’s show America that Republicans haven’t made up their minds yet about the Florida Senate race,” Huckabee said in a new Web video. “And when they do, they’re gonna choose the principled, conservative Republican candidate — and Marco Rubio will be on his way to the U.S. Senate.”

This could be fun. Mr. Rubio has already raised some eyebrows with his recent twitterpation about the demonstrators in Tehran, which proves he knows how to hit the hot-button issues with his thumbs. Running against Gov. Charlie Crist will be interesting, too; I can only imagine the whispering campaign that will be fomented by Mr. Rubio’s allies — if it isn’t already — about the governor’s private life.

If Mr. Rubio actually becomes the nominee, I’d like to see how he campaigns to win over the independent and moderate voters that make up a large part of the Florida electorate, which has been borderline blue for years and went for President Obama last fall. And even if he does appeal to the more conservative wing of the Florida Republicans, his Hispanic ancestry might be a little hard to swallow in parts of the state where they’re still not crazy about voting for someone who isn’t lily-white, Protestant, and whose name ends with vowel. Old times there are not forgotten.

This isn’t to say that Mr. Rubio doesn’t stand a chance in the general election. So far the Democrats have yet to generate any excitement for their candidates other than a recent flurry around Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is — so far — the default front runner. But if Mr. Rubio wins, it would give the hard-righties the determination to keep going down the path that got President Mike Huckabee elected last year by a landslide….