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Senate Democrats' Florida Conundrum

Rep. Kendrick Meek looks to be the winner in next week's Florida's Democratic primary. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek's (D) growing strength in advance of the Aug. 24 Democratic primary Senate fight against billionaire investor Jeff Greene (D) presents an interesting conundrum for many establishment Democrats who have long believed that their best chance of winning the seat rests on the independent candidacy of Gov. Charlie Crist.

Two new polls show Meek opening up a steady lead over Greene. In a Quinnipiac survey released this morning, Meek holds a 35 percent to 28 percent lead over Greene while a Mason-Dixon poll put the Miami-area Democratic Congressman's edge at 14 points.

On its face, that news should warm the hearts -- do they have them? (we kid) -- of Democratic party strategists.

After all, Greene's candidacy has been -- to coin a phrase -- an absolute shipwreck. A series of stories detailing his life as a bachelor aboard his yacht "Summerwind" as well as his close relationship with former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson would provide Republicans unending fodder in the fall with which to attack him.

But, that analysis overlooks the worst kept secret in Florida Democratic politics: most party strategists don't believe Meek can win a general election but they do think he can siphon enough traditionally Democratic votes away from Crist to hand the race to former state House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Democrats have semi-openly admitted that with Greene as the party's nominee, they would feel little remorse in casting a vote for Crist -- believing that the billionaire businessman is not fit to serve in the Senate. The same cannot be said of Meek.

One Democratic aide who has worked extensively in the state summed up the conventional wisdom thusly: "[We] clearly cannot publicly support Crist but if Meek is the nominee [we] know he not only has no shot at winning statewide."

The Mason-Dixon poll released earlier this week suggests those fears may be well founded. With Greene as the Democratic nominee, Crist takes 39 percent to Rubio's 38 percent. (Greene clocks in at just 12 percent.) With Meek as the party standard-bearer, Rubio takes 38 percent to 33 percent for Crist and 18 percent for the Miami Congressman.

And, since announcing he would pursue an independent bid in late April, Crist has done everything he can -- short of saying "I am a Democrat" -- to make clear where his ideological leanings lie.

In that time he has vetoed a merit pay bill for teachers that was strongly supported by Republicans and vetoed another piece of legislation that would have forced women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound before going forward with the procedure.

Crist has also touted conversations -- the content of which is somewhat disputed -- he has had with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.).

Combine Crist's clear signals that he would caucus on the Democratic with the widely-held belief among Florida strategists that Meek can't win a general election and you begin to understand the political cross-pressures going around the Sunshine State these days.

Meek's side, for their part, insists that calculations made about what may or may not happen in the race down the road ignore recent history -- when Crist initially got into the Republican primary last year he held a massive polling edge over Rubio -- and don't account for what an increasingly likely primary win next week might do for the Congressman.

"Democrats who are supporting Crist are making a Rubio win much more likely," said Steve Murphy who is handling media strategy for Meek. "That will quickly become apparent after Kendrick beats Greene decisively and begins consolidating Democrats. The rest is up to the White House and the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee]."

Murphy's last point may be the most important one in assessing Meek whether Meek will be a serious candidate or a spoiler this fall.

Meek will be heavily outraised and outspent by both Crist ($8 million on hand as of Aug. 4) and Rubio ($4.5 million) even if he is the nominee. Without help -- in the form of independent expenditure effort funded by the DSCC -- it's hard to imagine Meek growing his Miami-base enough to become a contender.

(Worth noting: There are some Democratic strategists who believe that Crist can win even with Meek as the nominee -- citing his high name identification and huge campaign warchest.)

While most neutral Democratic observers insist that the DSCC simply cannot afford to put money behind Meek in a prohibitively expensive state like Florida when the party has lots of other more winnable races around the country, the calculation may not be that simple.

Meek is African American and, if he wins the nomination, he would be the only credible black Democratic nominee for the Senate -- a Senate, it's worth noting, that won't have a single black member once Sen. Roland Burris (D) retires this fall.

Add that to the fact that the first black president occupies the White House and that African Americans comprise a central pillar of the Democratic party's base and there could be significant pressure brought to bear on national operatives to spend some money for Meek in Florida.

Florida has long been central to the national fight for political power. With Republicans growing increasingly bullish about their chances of making high-single digit pickups this fall, how the Meek-Crist-Greene dynamic shakes out could -- and we emphasize could -- wind up playing an integral role in who controls the Senate in the 112th Congress.

By Chris Cillizza  | August 18, 2010; 2:55 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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