Political Hay

Major Major Steps Down

Florida Republicans sense new life, particularly now that there may be a right Bush in their future.

By 12.5.08

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TAMPA -- To paraphrase the late Joe Heller's description of Major Major, a character in Catch-22, Heller's snarky but funny 1961 novel -- Republican Mel Martinez's Senate career, among careers lacking distinction, lacks more distinction than most. Few will mourn his departure when he leaves the Senate.

Martinez rose without a trace from Orange County (Orlando) politics to be W's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the backwater office in any Republican administration, and then rode W's coattails to a U.S. Senate seat in 2004 by a whisker.

In the intervening four years Martinez annoyed Florida's conservative voters by joining with Ted Kennedy and John McCain to whoop up the "We Don't Need No Stinking Borders Act of 2007," referred to, eccentrically, in some quarters as the immigration reform bill. Martinez, a Cuban-American, managed to alienate conservatives without cutting much ice with Florida's Hispanic voters, who voted for McCain in smaller numbers in 2008 than they voted for W in 2004.

Since being elected, Martinez has spent little time with Florida's Republican clubs or at county Republican Party meetings, and has earned something of a reputation for indifferent constituent service work.

Martinez was urged to run for the Senate in 2004 by W, with the help of intervening personal efforts by Karl Rove, at least partly, perhaps mainly, to block former Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris from seeking the office. Harris, who went on to lose a Senate race in a landslide in 2006, was a hero to many Republicans for sticking with her man, W, in the 2000 presidential election and its operatic aftermath, and a boogey-man (boogey-woman?) to Democrats for the same reason.

National Republicans were convinced, probably accurately, that Harris would lose in 2004. So when Martinez edged out Democrat Betty Castor, they thought they had gotten away with something. But it soon became clear that Martinez's time in the Senate would be a wasted interval, no more than a holding pattern. The man has no vision of where the country should be, and few visible political skills. He's a nice enough man, but on the stump he's a lava lamp without the charisma. He never really warmed to the office that he had no business winning, and Floridians never warmed to him.

So to the relief of many Republicans in Florida, and to the indifference of many more Floridians who don't even know he exists, Martinez announced this week that he won't ask to re-enlist in 2010 when his Senate term expires. Now Florida Republicans have a second reason, along with the re-election Tuesday of Republican Saxby Chambliss in neighboring Georgia, to cut back on their anti-depressant medicine.

Ever-unimaginative, Martinez denied his decision not to run was based on his bleak prospects of being re-elected in 2010. He said -- as almost every politician looking down the barrel of a likely electoral loss says -- that he wants to (all together now) spend more time with his family. You have to wonder if guys who say this also earlier in life told their grade school teachers that the dog ate their homework.

Regardless of how eager Mel is to return to hearth and home in Florida, he certainly would be problematic in 2010. "If his poll numbers were any lower, he'd trip over them," a local Republican consultant told me. A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday showed Martinez with 42 percent job approval and 33 percent who said they didn't like the job he was doing. Only 36 percent of those polled said he deserved a second term, with 38 percent saying he should find another job. Numbers to make a Democratic politician's mouth water.

THANKS TO MARTINEZ'S move, the chances of the Republican Party holding at least one U.S. Senate seat in Florida after November 2010 are much increased, as is the possibility that there will once again be someone named Bush in national office. No good news, bad news jokes here please. The Bush in question is former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, still popular when he left office in January of 2007, and who has not suffered from his older brother's popularity infarction. "I'm considering it," Bush said when asked if he was interested in the race.

Bush's entry into the race would clear the bench on the Republican side, as no one in that outfit wants to go up against the still-popular Bush in a primary. Bush has instant name-ID and an instant organization, along with the ability to raise gobs of money. Florida Republicans have other attractive candidates for the office, including Bartow Congressman Adam Putnam and former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense of Panama City. But Bush is the strongest contender by far. The other players are waiting to see what he'll do.

The strongest horses seeking the Democratic nomination are likely Pam Iorio, the current mayor of Tampa, or Alex Sink, Florida's current chief financial officer. Sink is probably the stronger candidate. Unlike so many Democratic politicians, former bank president Sink has actually held and thrived in responsible private sector jobs. She's the wife of former Florida gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride, who lost to Bush in 2002. (Rematch, anyone?) Iorio has always worked in government. Advantage Bush in either case.

If there's a wildcard on the Republican side, it's current Florida Governor Charlie Crist. The folks around Crist insist he wants to be re-elected governor in 2010. Maybe so. But Crist would be term-limited out of the governor's mansion after 2014, and second terms as governor, like second terms as President, are often not successful.

Those who've been around Crist for his entire political career know his eyes are always on the next prize, than which there can be no bigger prize than President. The man really wants it. So what could be better preparation for a run at the presidency than a term as governor of one of the biggest and most dynamic states in the union followed by national experience in the Senate?

A Bush/Crist primary battle would be spectator sport at the highest level. Political junkies and political reporters would love it. But you can be sure neither man relishes the prospect, and Republican officials would very much like to avoid it. They'd rather see either man win in 2010 than see the two beat themselves up to the benefit of the Democratic candidate.

Jeb better not take too long to make up his mind.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.