Campaign Crawlers

Rubio It’s You

A young conservative declares for Senate in Charlie Crist's Florida.

By 5.11.09

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TAMPA -- Conservatives can be excused for enjoying it a little too much as Arlen Specter learns, to his deep regret, that Democrats will almost certainly treat him worse than Republicans have.

If Republicans wish to be a party with a purpose, one that seriously opposes the leftward rush of our rookie president and his merry band, Mitch McConnell will not be quick to say, "Come on back, all is forgiven."

Now there's at least a chance that Florida will not be replacing Arlen with another Senate RINO after the 2010 election. Last Wednesday, Marco Rubio, a 37-year-old, Cuban-American lawyer from Miami and a former speaker of the Florida House, declared he will be running for the U.S. Senate seat that Republican Mel Martinez will relinquish when his term ends next year.

Rubio will almost certainly face the current Florida governor, Charlie Crist, in the Republican primary. (Crist is expected to announce for the Senate this week. If he doesn't, lots of Florida Republican consultants and other politically savvy prognosticator types will be wiping major egg from their faces. No one in the political biz in Florida thinks Charlie will run for re-election as governor.)  

Crist, who has held one office or another in Florida politics since 1992 and who won the governorship in 2006, is more often referred to as a moderate or a populist than as a conservative. His favorable ratings in polls remain in the sixties and seventies, even though he's promised much and delivered little on two issues -- property tax relief and high property insurance rates -- that Floridians anguish over. Lots of Democrats and independents like him because he sounds a lot like them.

Crist is popular among rank and file Republicans, but he's cheesed off the conservative wing of the Republican Party by taking extreme environmental positions, including supporting a carbon cap and trade system and attempting to get the Florida Legislature to force Florida utilities to use an unrealistically high percentage of "renewable fuels" to generate electricity. He also spent a good deal of time whooping up President Obama's "stimulus" package (actually appearing on the same stage with Obama in Ft. Myers in February to coo about it) and recently appointed a liberal jurist to the Florida Supreme Court.

Crist further annoys conservatives by spending more time prattling on in a vacuous, Kumbaya way about the healing properties of "bipartisanship" and "diversity" (as though Florida weren't diverse) than in speaking about or supporting conservative principles. He's not had a positive thing to say about social conservatives or their causes. He's pro-abortion and cool with same-sex civil unions. He supported John McCain's "We Don't Need No Stinking Borders Act of 2007." He's said he wants to restore voting rights to felons after they've completed their sentences. He's filled the state's top regularity agency posts with people environmentalists find simpatico. He's whooped up tougher, California-like emissions standards for Florida automobiles that would be costly to implement but would provide questionable environmental benefits.

Crist is infatuated with big, expensive commuter rail systems. And has declared he's in favor of new major-league ball yards on the public dime (such a one as the Tampa Bay Rays ownership wants).

Considering the above, RINO is the nicest thing conservatives call Crist in private conversation. The words "empty suit" come up a lot. So do some other words, over which we need not linger.

RUBIO IS FRESH FROM EIGHT YEARS in the Florida House of Representatives, the last two as speaker, where he compiled a conservative voting record. He's smart, energetic, ambitious, and to all appearances sincere in his conservatism. He's an enthusiastic if not always eloquent speaker. When he speaks it's usually on conservative themes such as limited government, the superiority of the private sector over the public (the entrepreneur over the bureaucrat), the centrality of the family (he's married with four children), judges who interpret rather than make law, and a vigorous foreign policy.

Rubio rarely mentions Crist by name in his comments, but any Floridian who doesn't know who Rubio is referring to is just back from an extended vacation on Mars. A few samples from my conversation with Rubio last week:

"Elections are about choice, and I'm going to present a clear alternative," Rubio said. "The first job is to nominate a Republican. And we have a choice about what we want a Republican to be."

Rubio went on to lament Republicans who "just want to survive. Their message seems to be if you can't beat them, join them. If we go in this direction Republicans become just another branch of the Democrats." Then he excoriated Republicans who "think we should be grateful for Obama's stimulus package."

Rubio has criticized Crist's big-government energy policies in the past, and did so again in our conversation. Rubio said that while he is not prepared to challenge the claims of the global warmers, he says even if they are right there is no need to destroy the economy, as a cap and trade system would, in order to protect us.

"American innovators will solve the energy crisis for us," Rubio said. "We don't need big government mandates." 
If the race indeed shapes up to be Crist vs. Rubio, Republican voters will certainly be faced with, to coin a cliché, a choice not an echo. One of the savviest people on the subject of Florida politics is University of South Florida professor Susan McManus. She told me a Crist/Rubio race would be "a battle for the ideological heart and soul of the Florida Republican Party."

Rubio will certainly have an uphill battle in taking on Crist. If the election were held this week he would lose big. But the race isn't this week. It's 15 months from now. Plenty of time for both Rubio and Florida Democrats to knock some bloom off the Crist rose.

"There's no reason for Crist's popularity to stay high," McManus said. "The Democrats will be painting a more partisan face on him."

The 2010 Florida Senate race will be instructive in more ways than just deciding what Republican means in Florida. We'll also see if those tens of thousands of new Democrats the Obama campaign managed to register really plan to make Florida a blue state or were just infatuated with Obama.

While Florida was going for Obama in 2008, Democrats picked up only one seat in Florida's 160-seat legislature. And Floridians voted the conservative line on a plateful of constitutional amendments. But between 2004 and 2008, Florida Democrats picked up a net gain of more than 288,000 voters and lead Republicans in registration 4.7 million to 4.2 million. Party registration numbers in Florida are always tricky due to the left-over conservative Democrats who are registered with a D but haven't voted for a Democrat since JFK. There are, of course, fewer and fewer of these as the years go by. 

McManus said South Florida, three-term Congressman Kendrick Meek, now the likely front-runner on the Democratic side, "can be counted on to try to replicate the Obama model." It's far too soon to predict if change will still charm two years after our rookie president was sworn in, if Obama's Florida organization can be brought back to life, or if Meek is as slick and glib as Obama. 

Rubio is just shy of 38 years old. He can sometimes come across as a brash graduate student. If the Florida Republican bench were deeper he might still be refining his game in AA ball. But the Republican bench isn't deep. So if Florida conservatives want a voice in the U.S. Senate any time soon, young Rubio has about a year to learn to hit big league pitching.

This one should be worth watching. And considering the current Republican/Democrat lineup in the U.S. Senate, the race will enjoy a national audience. Perhaps even serious national contributors. Stay tuned.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.