Florida’s Republican Senate primary has quickly become a contest between the party’s base and its national leadership.
On March 11, when Gov. Charlie Crist (R-Fla.) entered the 2010 U.S. Senate race, Marco Rubio was in Washington. The former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives was ready for this moment, rumored for weeks, the entry of a Republican party dream candidate who threatened to push him out of the race. When Crist put out a press release announcing the run, Rubio’s campaign pushed out a Web ad that showed Crist gazing into President Barack Obama’s eyes at a rally for the economic stimulus package. As Crist went about his work for the day, Rubio met with possible campaign allies and conservative media.
In the office of the David All Group, a new media firm that’s putting together much of Rubio’s web campaign, David All clicked through the windows on his MacBook Pro and watched the social networks churn. Traffic at Rubio’s web site was surging upward. Conservatives were retweeting Rubio’s punchy messages, such as “
“This is Barack versus Hillary,” said All. “This is going to be a battle about what the Republican Party stands for. We have to make a decision: Are we going to get behind candidates who are real reformers who can help the Republicans recover its brand?”
Florida’s Republican Senate primary has quickly become a contest between the party’s base and its national leadership. Since the start of the Obama administration, the national party has attempted to capture the energy of the base by endorsing anti-spending Tea Parties, opposing the Democratic agenda, and blaming the losses of 2006 and 2008 on a move away from fiscal conservatism. At the same time, it has courted more moderate candidates like Florida’s Crist, California’s former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and former Gov. Tom Ridge (R-Pa.). Until he became a Democrat this month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee had supported Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) over conservative foot soldier Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania’s Senate race. This disconnect between message and recruitment is starting to irk conservative activities and setting up heated primaries that the party would have preferred to avoid.
The coming Florida primary is shaping up to be the most brutal of the ideological primaries. Rubio, a 39-year-old Cuban-American who served for eight years in the Florida House — the last two years as speaker — entered the Senate race on May 5. Early on, he said that anyone who voted with the Senate Republican moderates “might as well be a Democrat.” In March, Rubio quietly signed up Ann Herberger, a prolific fundraiser for Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, to stockpile cash for a campaign. In April, he came to Washington to talk with the Club for Growth, the fiscal conservative PAC that until April was led by Pat Toomey, and one that welcomed Crist into the race with pointed criticism. This, and an aggressive media strategy that has resulted in warm interviews with Fox News and National Review, has allowed Rubio to build buzz with conservative activists who fully expect Crist to lead the first rounds of polls.
“It will be closer than it looks right now,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “It’s Crist’s race to lose but there is a pent-up animus against him from mainstream Republican voters who don’t like the fact that he’s cozied up to President Obama.”
Rubio is laying the groundwork for that by patiently laying out a litany of conservative complaints against Crist — his environmentalism, his appointment of a pro-choice judge, and above all his support for the economic stimulus package. “Charlie Crist has proven to have more confidence in the ability of government to grow the economy than I have and than Republicans should have,” Rubio told National Review. While Crist supported the president, Rubio attended an anti-spending Tea Party and has produced a video that mashes up his speech from the event with interviews he conducted with other protesters — a video that has been played for attendees of Grover Norquist’s Wednesday meetings of Washington conservatives.
“Rubio went to a Tea Party,” said Javier Manjarres, chairman of the south Florida-based Conservative Republican Alliance. “Where was Crist? He didn’t go to any Tea Parties. To stand with Obama like he did was a slap in the face of Republicans.”
In some quarters of Florida’s Republican base, there is lingering bitterness over Crist’s olive branches to Democrats — he once said he was “open” to reparations for slavery — and the state GOP’s decisions during the 2008 election. While Obama carried Florida, the party lost the House seats of scandalized Republican incumbents Rep. Tom Feeney and Rep. Ric Keller while winning the seat of disgraced Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney. Republicans who worked on other races, without much party support, aren’t won over by Crist or his endorsement from state party chairman Jim Greer.
“He too could very well next be the Arlen Specter and they’re racing to him,” said Vince Mariano, an aide to Ed Lynch, a Republican who ran against Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and is running again in 2010. “This is yet another outrageous power play by the establishment to force a candidate on Floridians that, at best, they’ll half-heartedly support. Democrats can look at it with glee, but there are serious principles at play. That’s rarely the case on their side.”
What irks conservatives who are being told to get behind moderate candidates is that the Republican Party has spent much of this year courting their support — pandering to them, as some activists suggested. After the April 15 Tea Parties, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) talked about “embracing” the activists who’ve argued that the GOP lost its way with the big spending of the Bush years. Convincing them to buckle and support candidates like Crist, or to support a challenger to Pennsylvania’s Toomey, cuts against their arguments.
“The Tea Party movement is non-partisan,” said Tea Party and Top Conservatives on Twitter activist Michael Patrick Leahy, “but if the GOP is going to nominate candidates who do not promote and support fiscal responsibility, than the GOP is going to lose support from us.”
Leahy criticized Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) for their plan to host a “Tea Party 2.0″ conference call Thursday, May 14, borrowing the message of the rallies to get support for gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. “This movement is about the mainstream class against the political class,” said Leahy. “I personally think Sanford is a good governor, but it’s a mistake for Sanford to co-opt the Tea Party Movement.”
Justin Hart, another Tea Party organizer, is running new media projects for Chuck DeVore, a Republican assemblyman from California who is, at the moment, the only candidate running against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The DeVore campaign closely watched the NRSC’s decision on Crist, because the national committee has talked to former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina about entering the race and elbowing DeVore — considered too conservative to win a statewide election — out of the race. “Our main concern is that the NRSC is picking winners and losers,” said Hart. “That mirrors what the Obama administration is doing with the economy, and the NRSC’s record is one of complete failure over the last few years. Carly’s new to politics and has decent name recognition? We’ve been down that road before in California. His name was ‘Arnold.’”
DeVore, who attended a Tea Party in Modesto, contrasted his record with Fiorina’s tacit support of the economic stimulus and the national party’s belief that self-funding, “inexperienced, dilletente politican wannabees” could save the party in California. “That’s the path of least resistance and it leads to defeat,” said DeVore. “Even if they win some seats, they will wind wind up with principle-less individuals who perpetuate themselves in power. We saw what happened with that in 2006 and 2008. If we want the GOP to succeed in the future we need to get back to what makes us different than the Democrats.”
As the NRSC continues to push for more moderate candidates, conservatives like Rubio, Toomey and DeVore have allies in high places. “It is always a problem when Republicans are not faithful to conservative views,” said James Bopp, Jr., the Indiana RNC committeeman who is pushing for the party to pass a resolution asking the Democrats to rename themselves the Democrat Socialist Party. “When that happens, people become confused about the differences between Republicans and Democrats, and that is a prescription for Dem success.”
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