Democrats Smell Blood in Florida
The 2010 Senate election cycle has barely started, but the Democrats’ top target has already emerged: Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida.
By JOSH KRAUSHAAR | 12/2/08 4:47 AM EST
His popularity is sagging due to his long-standing ties to President George W. Bush, his high-profile advocacy for immigration reform that alienated conservatives, and his tumultuous nine-month stint last year as chairman of the Republican National Committee, which did little to burnish his image, either within his own party or among independents and Democrats.
A November Quinnipiac poll showed a 38 percent plurality of Florida voters believe Martinez doesn’t deserve another term, while only 36 percent believe he should be reelected. Against an unnamed Democratic opponent, Martinez trails by 4 points, 40 percent to 36 percent.
His approval rating stood at only 42 percent — well below the 50 percent mark considered safe territory for incumbents.
“The reasons his negatives are so high is because his national profile is so political — he’s been head of [the] RNC and is seen as being very close to President Bush,” said Florida Democratic pollster Dave Beatty. “Florida doesn’t like overly partisan people from either side, and he’s gotten the most coverage for his political position.”
Martinez hasn’t officially announced he is running for reelection, but a Republican operative said he is making plans to run again.
Despite the troubling polling numbers, the first-term Republican begins his reelection campaign with some inherent advantages. As a Cuban-American, Martinez has a natural base of support among Hispanic voters, and his home base in Orlando’s Orange County gives him a foothold in one of the fastest-growing parts of Florida. He also has a healthy war chest, with more than $1.2 million cash on hand at the end of September, the most recent reporting period.
Indeed, Republicans argue that his role at the RNC helped him expand his list of fundraising contacts for what they expect will be a very expensive race.
“Martinez’s chairmanship and service to the GOP should be seen as an asset, not a disadvantage,” said Erin VanSickle, Florida Republican Party spokeswoman.
Despite the national profile afforded by his RNC chairmanship, Martinez still must work to increase his visibility in a state where that’s not so easy. With seven major media markets, it’s difficult and expensive for federal officeholders to command attention. The Quinnipiac poll revealed that 25 percent of voters are still unfamiliar with Martinez’s record.
What attention he has received is largely rooted in partisan politics: as Bush’s state chairman in 2000, as the president’s secretary of housing and urban development and as the short-lived head of the RNC.
“He doesn’t have a lot of visibility in the state. He doesn’t get nearly the same level of attention that Gov. [Charlie] Crist receives,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
Of course, there aren’t many Democrats with high statewide visibility, either. One of the state’s most popular elected officials, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, has not publicly announced whether she will run against Martinez, but according to a well-placed Democratic operative, she has decided to run for reelection and will not be challenging Martinez.
Sink, one of Florida’s few Democratic statewide officeholders, would have been a formidable opponent. But without her in the race, it’s likely that no single candidate will clear the field, making it probable that a large pool of candidates will be fighting for the nomination.
With Sink out of the picture, all eyes will be on Democratic Rep. Ron Klein, who was just elected to his second term in the House. Klein has $1.8 million in the bank, which he could transfer to a Senate campaign committee, giving him a significant financial advantage over other aspirants who would have to begin fundraising from scratch.
Klein has already knocked off one incumbent Republican, having ousted veteran Rep. Clay Shaw in 2006, but Klein’s unimpressive 55 percent reelection win last month has some Democrats questioning whether he would have much appeal outside his South Florida base.
Klein’s Democratic colleague, Rep. Allen Boyd of North Florida, is another possible candidate, but he faces similar limitations. Florida’s liberal-minded Democratic primary electorate may not warm to a Blue Dog Democrat such as Boyd, who is best known as a fiscal hawk. Boyd also faces a geographic challenge, since the biggest portion of Democratic votes is located in South Florida and the fast-growing Interstate 4 corridor.
Boyd has been polling voters in Florida to gauge his political standing outside North Florida.
“Boyd is the last guy I’d want to run against if I was Martinez,” said another Democratic operative. “He’s got a strong fundraising network, and most importantly, he can win North Florida. And if Martinez can’t crush you in North Florida, it’s over.”
Two other potential candidates hail from the state’s Legislature. State Sen.-elect Dan Gelber, the outgoing state House minority leader, is mulling a bid, as is state Sen. Dave Aronberg, an up-and-comer in Florida Democratic circles.
“None of these guys are rock stars, but this race is all about Martinez,” said the Democratic operative. “With national Democrats getting involved, this will be a great opportunity for us.”
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Martin County Democratic Executive Committee has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Martin County Democratic Executive Committee endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)
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