By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Aug. 24, 2010……….U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek will be the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in November, easily winning a race with real estate mogul Jeff Greene that had been tight most of the summer.
With almost 40 percent of the state’s 6,800 precincts counted, the Associated Press called Meek the winner shortly after polls closed with returns showing him leading Greene 55 percent to 32 percent. With 70 percent of the precincts reporting, Meek had 391,995 votes to Greene’s 239,358. Minor candidates Maurice Ferre and Glenn Burkett had 36,483 and 52,183 respectively.
Meek, who became the first candidate to jump into the Senate race when former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez announced he wouldn’t run for re-election in January 2009, had been the preferred candidate of state and national Democrats.
He called his victory “a clear message” that voters want a Democrat in the U.S. Senate, saying that he would overcome the odds in the coming three-way race with Republican nominee Marco Rubio and independent candidate Gov. Charlie Crist this fall as he did in beating Greene Tuesday.
“I made the case that I am the real Democrat in this race. I also made the case that I have the will and desire and energy to pull a double shift to get people back to work, get them health care and protect our environment,” Meek told supporters during an energetic rally in Hollywood. “We made history because the state of Florida was not for sale.”
Meek quickly turned his sights to the three-way race with Rubio and Crist, which he sought to frame as a choice between two Republicans and a fighter for the middle-class, casting himself as the lone unabashed supporter of President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings in Florida have dipped but remain near 50 percent. He acknowledged, however, that he starts that race as a decided underdog.
“If this primary showed anything, it showed that this campaign has the strength, integrity and will” to beat the odds in November, he continued. “I may not be the Goliath on Nov. 2, but until Nov. 2, I’m going to be very comfortable playing David.”
Leading up to Tuesday’s vote, there had been rumors that national Democrats would quietly support Crist in the fall if Meek had lost the party’s primary – or fails to gain traction in the general election. Meek blunted the speculation with campaign visits from Obama and former President Bill Clinton in the closing days of the primary, which coincided with Meek stepping up his statewide television presence to counter the $23 million Greene spent out of pocket.
The money allowed Greene to go from being a virtual unknown to being tied with Meek – and leading him in some polls – by mid-summer. But the state Democratic Party, which had long been mutually standoffish with Greene, trumpeted Tuesday’s results, pointing out that Meek was outspent in the race 7-to-1.
“Kendrick is the strong nominee our party needs in November,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Karen Thurman said. “He is the only Real Democrat in this race against not one, but two lifelong conservatives who have consistently stood against the middle class. We congratulate him on (tonight’s) victory, and look forward to helping him win in November.”
With Republicans originally locked in a high-profile and contentious primary for the Republican nomination between Crist, who has since left the GOP, and Rubio, Meek once had the Democratic field to himself. For more than a year, he focused on building a ground game and raising money for what was presumed to be an expensive fall campaign, locking up the support of the state and national party establishments early. He qualified for office by petition, quietly building a statewide ground operation for the fall campaign.
The primary field was not as clear as he thought, however. On the final day of qualifying Greene, a billionaire with a checkered past, entered the primary and quickly began flooding the airwaves with television commercials, pushing Meek even further off the political radar.
Former Miami Mayor Ferre – who is well-known in South Florida but never polled well or raised much money – also got in the race. A forth candidate, Burkett, was also in the race, but he gained even less traction than Ferre.
It was Greene’s money and brash accusations that Meek was essentially corrupt that defined the contest. Greene spent $23 million of his own money to make the case against the veteran Miami Congressman, and appeared for a time to be succeeding.
Meek fought back, however, digging into the war chest he had wanted to save for the fall to spend $4.7 million, arguing in television commercials that Greene made his money betting on homeowners defaulting on their mortgages. Greene was also dogged by articles about reported raunchy parties on his yacht, Summerwind, and his associations with figures such as Mike Tyson, who was the best man at his wedding.
The race turned ugly, with Meek calling Greene “a bad man” and Greene calling Meek “corrupt.” Meek also accused Greene of attacking his family for raising allegations his mother got a job and a car from a Liberty City developer who planned a project Meek pushed, which never came to fruition. The would-be developer has since been arrested, and Greene said he was criticizing Meek, not his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, who remains a beloved icon in the South Florida African-American community.
Meek entered the final day of voting confident enough to issue a campaign schedule for Wednesday, planning to thank supporters in Miami, Boca Raton, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers. By contrast, Greene campaigned Tuesday in Democratic-vote-rich Broward County, visiting condominiums in Pembroke Pines, Tamarac, and Coconut Creek, but his campaign made no mention of Wednesday events.
In national interviews before Tuesday’s vote, Meek said he was not worried that he will enter the general election weakened by the brutal primary. The general election, a two-month sprint that begins in earnest Wednesday, will be shorter than the primary, he said.
“We’ll have the resources,” Meek said on MSNBC Monday. “We have general election dollars in holding. We’re close enough to the November election where folks will start voting early on.”
Meek also brushed off polls showing both him far behind Meek and Rubio at the start of general election. In Quinnipiac University’s Aug. 19 poll, Crist led Rubio 39-32 percent, with Meek garnering 16 percent.
Greene did not fare any better in that hypothetical match-up, with Crist getting 40 percent to Rubio’s 32 percent and his 15.
Crist’s early lead in the three-way race is buoyed by a stunning level of support from Democratic voters. In the Quinnipiac poll, Crist pulled more support among Democrats – 45 percent – than either Meek or Greene, who drew 36 and 31 percent respectively.
Shortly after the race was called for Meek, Crist made a clear play to maintain that Democratic support as the general election gets underway.
“Washington is broken. It’s a swamp of partisan bickering, finger-pointing, and destructive political games,” he said in an E-mail to supporters. “We have huge problems in this country and in this state, but instead of working together to fix them, the gridlock is worse than ever.”
“I am running for the United States as an independent to change that. I will take the best ideas – whether they come from Democrats or Republicans – to get results for the people of Florida, because the only way to craft common sense solutions to our problems is to reach across party lines – to listen and work together,” Crist continued. “Now that the primaries are over, it is clear that I am the only candidate in this race who can do that, who has a track record of doing it, and if I win, will have the mandate from the people to do it.”
It remains to be seen if Meek and Greene make efforts to heal rifts created by their primary, which could be crucial to Meek staunching the bleeding of Democratic voters to Crist going forward. Meek had most of the establishment support, but refused until the final day of voting to say he would endorse Greene if he had lost Tuesday’s vote. Meek called himself the “Real Democrat” in the race and repeatedly pointed out that Greene ran for office in the early 1980’s as Republican in California.
Greene tried to make unsuccessfully to make hay of Meek’s refusal to say he would endorse him if he had won the Democratic nomination, but with polls showing him faltering against Meek in the closing days of the campaign, the charge never resonated.