By Jamie Miller
What does U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez’s retirement mean to Florida?
What a difference 24 hours and a Thanksgiving holiday make in Florida politics! Florida’s incumbent CFO Alex Sink scheduled an announcement for Tuesday to announce that she was seeking reelection almost assuredly keeping that Cabinet post in Democratic hands. She ended speculation that she would run against incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez after many polls showed that he is vulnerable following his first term in office. But throwing the entire Florida political system in a quagmire is Sen. Martinez who is announcing his intentions to retire from the Senate leaving that seat vacant.
Now, there will certainly be a mad scramble in Florida politics as this plays out. With Sen. Martinez’s departure, does Sink reevaluate her political future? I think that it is likely that she does. She is without a doubt, the strongest Democratic competitor for an open statewide office. It doesn’t appear that Martinez is going to, as was widely speculated, resign his seat so Gov. Crist could appoint someone who would be seen as an incumbent.
Those on the Republican side who are mentioned for statewide office right now are Congressman Putnam, State Rep. Marty Bowen and State Sen. Carey Baker all who either are or are seen as likely seeking the open secretary of agriculture seat. Only Putnam would be considered a serious contender for the U.S. Senate but conventional wisdom is that Putnam wants to be governor and that he would need to rekindle some of his Tallahassee relationships to attain that goal. Congressman Vern Buchanan would be a formidable opponent since most think he would be willing to fill any fund-raising gaps from his own personal wealth. Attorney General Bill McCollum is seen as a likely competitor for the U.S. Senate seat, he has run for the U.S. Senate twice and lost, which would vacate the post of Attorney General. McCollum doesn’t have much to lose if he runs because on Election Day he will be 65 which is a fairly old Attorney General but a relatively young U.S. Senator. McCollum released a statement today that said he planned to announce his reelection for attorney general but will now consider a run for the U.S. Senate. Most think that he has long wanted to be a U.S. Senator and will not likely let this opportunity pass him by. Others mentioned are Senate President Jeff Atwater and former Speaker of the House Marco Rubio. Another name mentioned is former Gov. Jeb Bush. While conventional wisdom would say that the 2008 election results were a repudiation of anyone named Bush for at least a generation, Jeb is loved in Florida and the U.S. Senate could be a way for him to save the family honor and give him a national stage in which to one day run for the Presidency.
If Alex Sink and Bill McCollum both vacate their cabinet seats to seek the U.S. Senate seat, it would be the first time since Republicans have been in power in state government that all the cabinet seats, excluding governor, and a U.S. Senate seat would be open. It would be a free-for-all of historic proportions. Neither political party can want the type of spending that would be required from three open cabinet seats, an open U.S. Senate seat and a defense (for Republicans) or a challenge (for Democrats) for the governor’s mansion.
In 2002, Jeb Bush was up for reelection for governor, Tom Gallagher was unopposed for CFO, and Charlie Bronson outspent his opponent $1.8 million to $15,000. The only real competitive race, besides the gubernatorial race, was attorney general where Charlie Crist outspent and defeated Buddy Dyer. Crist raised $2.3 million to Dyer’s $1.5 million. Combined, the Republican Party of Florida and its cabinet candidates outspent the Florida Democratic Party and its cabinet candidates by about $66 million to $35 million. This does include spending by the Parties for state house and senate candidates.
In 2006, the races were more competitive. Not only was the gubernatorial race an open seat, the race for CFO and Attorney General were open as well. Bronson was the only state candidate running for statewide office who was the incumbent. Charlie Crist outspent Jim Davis by about $20 million to $7 million. The RPOF and all of its state candidates running for statewide office outspent the Florida Democratic Party and its candidates by about $89 million to $47 million.
In 2010, it would likely cost both political parties significantly more to run and win five statewide races. 2010 also represents the largest opening of state house and senate seats in the history of the state due to term limits. It will likely cost Republicans in excess of $100 million and would probably cost the Florida Democratic Party a similar amount if they are going to compete in all five races.
This could all mean an easy reelection for Gov. Crist. Once Democrats field their strongest candidates for open statewide seats, it would be likely that Democrats will not have the time, talent nor treasure to compete for the governor’s mansion.
The Democrats look toward an awfully weak bench as they would try to seek to fill four open statewide seats. Those who are mentioned for statewide office include Sink, U.S. Reps Ron Klein and Kendrick Meek, State Senators Dan Gelber and Dave Aaronberg. Sen. Aaronberg has said he did not want to run against an incumbent McCollum but he may seek attorney general if McCollum were to leave the post. Former Democratic Gubernatorial Nominee Jim Davis from Tampa is mentioned as a possible standard bearer for one of the open seats but would likely want to take another try at governor or the open U.S. Senate seat. The one democrat who could pose a challenge who is not mentioned in most of these debates is Sen. Al Lawson from the Tallahassee area. From a strategic standpoint, he wouldn’t likely beat Gov. Crist but he could generate enough African-American turnout that some of the down ballot races could be a problem for some of the Republican nominees.
In all likelihood, this will take months to play, but one thing is for sure, if someone is thinking about running for statewide office in 2010 they need to get started soon and show that they can raise the dollars needed to be competitive for a statewide race.
Jamie Miller is a political consultant who specializes in campaign strategy, candidate development, and crisis communications. Miller is a former executive director for the Republican Party of Florida. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.