Challenging the GOP’s establishment liberal wing won’t be easy
By Larry Thornberry
TAMPA — The race for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate seat Mel Martinez is not seeking re-election to in 2010 — which pits liberal Florida Governor Charlie Crist against conservative former Speaker of the Florida House Marco Rubio — is not exactly heating up. But it’s taking shape. There’s good and bad news for the right.
The good news is that Rubio is demonstrating he can excite the conservative base of the Republican Party with his call to “take our country back” with policies that support family values, limited government, and leave stimulating the economy and creating jobs up to entrepreneurs. He did it again last weekend at several campaign stops across the Tampa Bay Area.
Hillsborough County Republican Chairman Deborah Cox-Roush was looking for about 150 to attend Friday night’s “Issues and Ideas” dinner featuring Rubio at a hard-to-reach, auto-sclerotic location near the University of South Florida in north Tampa. What she got was 306 diners who cheered lustily when Rubio charged that “the stimulus package hasn’t stimulated anything but the national debt.” He said promiscuous government spending that goes under the name of the “stimulus,” which Crist supports, is “based on short-term thinking that doesn’t solve our current problems by spending money we don’t have and giving the bill to future generations.”
The crowd also liked it when Rubio said the best the proposed carbon cap and trade scheme, which Crist also fancies, could do would be to “make America a clean, third-world country.” He calls it “nothing but a revenue source masquerading as an environmental policy that wouldn’t do a thing for the environment.” They clapped and whistled their agreement to Rubio’s noting that “while we need to do a better job in health care, we don’t need to turn 18 percent of the economy over to the federal government, as the legislation being considered now would do.”
Rubio, whose parents came here from Cuba in 1959, said the way for the Republicans to attract Hispanic voters (as well as any other kind of voter) is not by adopting liberal policies or by having Mariachi bands at rallies, but by pursuing policies that assure future generations of Americans will continue to enjoy freedom, prosperity, and opportunity.
But the bad news for conservatives is that while Rubio has generated enthusiasm at events such as the one Friday night in Tampa, he’s not generating much in the way of campaign contributions. Rubio is grotesquely behind Crist in dialing for dollars.
For the three months reporting period ending June 30, Crist set a Florida Senate race fund-raising record by collecting a gaudy $4.3 million, much of it out-of-town money collected by high-powered lobbyists in Washington and Tallahassee. Some of it even comes from swells who attended fund-raising dinners for Crist in the Hamptons (we all know how keen Hamptons swells are on Florida concerns). This haul by Crist was more than 12 times as much as the modest $340,000 the Rubio campaign fetched in over the same period.
Rubio and his campaign officials have tried to put the best possible face on the money disparity, and on the fact that the disappointing cash flow has forced them to cut paid campaign staff. They point out that as a popular sitting governor Crist is in a great position to shake the money tree. He’s getting a great deal of help from silk-stocking corporate and legal circles. As for the Hamptons crowd, Florida media report dinner donors for Crist include such Florida enthusiasts as Donald Trump and Johnny Damon (of the New York Yankee Damons).
Rubio maintains that he doesn’t have to match Crist’s fund-raising, just get enough to get his story out. He’s probably right about this. Most polls show Crist leading Rubio in the neighborhood of 20 to 25 points. But a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month shows the race about even between Republican voters who are familiar with both candidates. Being speaker of the house doesn’t lead to nearly as much name recognition as being governor does. So Rubio’s challenge is getting known, which, if the Mason-Dixon poll is correct, would lead to a much more competitive race.
If he doesn’t have to raise as much as Crist to succeed, Florida is a still huge state with 10 media markets. He’ll have to do better than $340K per quarter. He’ll have to get folks across the state, like the ones he inspired Friday night in Tampa, to stop clapping long enough to pick up their check books.
Rubio has a long time to do this. The Republican primary isn’t until August 24, 2010. Rubio is campaigning full-time while Crist still has to at least appear to be paying attention to his job as governor. Crist has also been spending a fair amount of time in Washington and New York accepting campaign checks. And Crist won’t have another quarter like this last one. Many of his contributors are maxed out, and so can’t give more. Also, much of the money Crist has collected can’t be used until the general election, so isn’t available to use in the race against Rubio.
It’s rare to see such a clear liberal vs. conservative contest in a Republican primary. The stands Rubio is taking in his campaign and his record during eight years in the Florida House mark him as a clear conservative.
Crist, who has held countless elected offices in Florida, none for very long, is something else again. He likes to be called a populist. (He’s particularly fond of the treacly sobriquet, “the people’s governor.”) The fawning media mostly refer to him as a moderate. What he is is a liberal. This isn’t entirely by design. Those who’ve followed Crist through the years can’t detect any core political philosophy in him. It’s just that in his desire to be all things to all people he’s prone to supporting big, expensive environmental boondoggles.
Crist claims, and to an extent deserves, credit for holding the line on new or increased state taxes in Florida. But any savings Floridians may enjoy from tax increases that didn’t take place on Crist’s watch (not that his heavily Republican legislature has been eager to increase taxes anyway), are trifling compared to the expense of the mega-government policies Crist has whooped up. These have included pressuring the Florida Legislature to adopt a state carbon cap and trade system and to force Florida utilities to use 20 percent “renewable” fuels to generate electricity, a percentage anyone but a hard-core environmentalist would know is unreasonable. He also pushed for Florida to adopt California’s expensive auto emissions standards. Any one of these three would cost Floridians a packet and not improve the environment.
Crist hasn’t had a thing positive to say about any conservative social issue. And he recently appointed a liberal to the Florida Supreme Court. With finger to the wind, Crist announced last week that if he were in the Senate now he would likely not vote for Sonia Sotomayor because he says he fears “she would not strictly and objectively construe the Constitution.” Rubio called Crist on this one, saying the guy Crist recently appointed to the highest Florida court, Justice James Perry, is more of an activist judge than Sotomayor.
This election will tell us a lot about what Florida Republicans are all about. About what national Republicans are about as well. (Most of the national Republican muftis have lined up behind Crist.) The race has been described in several quarters as “a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.” It will also demonstrate whether a slow but relentless retail ground-game with limited media can succeed in a large state against a well-financed candidate the establishment is firmly behind.
If Rubio could pull this off and then get past the Democrat in November of ’10, he would become one of the most conservative members of the Senate. And it wouldn’t hurt the Republicans’ prospects in Florida, and nationwide, to have an energetic, young, conservative Hispanic senator as a face of the party.
Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa and frequent contributor to Irreverent View. This column first appeared in The American Spectator. E-mail Larry at: email@example.com.