Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s decision to run for the Senate in 2010 set the stage for a potentially brutal GOP primary battle between moderates lining up behind Crist and conservatives backing his challenger, Marco Rubio.
Crist has a huge lead over Rubio in a new poll of registered Republicans in the Sunshine State.
But the Senate race could showcase the deep divide that national Republicans are struggling to overcome after two consecutive election-year blowouts.
Even more troubling for the beleaguered party is the fact that it’s just one of many moderate-vs.-conservative primaries taking shape in top races next year.
“For me, it's always been about service, wanting to serve the people of Florida the very best I possibly can,” Crist told reporters on May 12 after announcing his Senate bid.
“As a result of that, I believe that I can best serve the people of Florida, if they're willing to allow me, as their next United States senator.”
Within minutes of Crist’s announcement, top Senate Republicans lined up to endorse him over Rubio, a former state House speaker. The list included National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John Cornyn, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. John McCain, and retiring Sen. Mel Martinez, whose seat Crist now is running to fill.
Martinez, a former Republican National Committee chairman, said he lobbied his colleagues to rally quickly around Crist to project a message of GOP unity.
“I suggested to them it was very important that we present a united front, and make sure there's not a complicated primary when there doesn't need to be one,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “This wasn't a heavy lift. Everyone chimed right in.”
Not quite everyone — Cornyn’s decision to back Crist, in fact, has sparked a fiery backlash from conservatives.
“This is a contest that the NRSC should sit out, as Florida Republicans decide for themselves what to do,” National Review editors wrote on Tuesday.
“Instead of trying to beat conservatives, the NRSC should save its resources for defeating Democrats.”
Erick Erickson, founder and editor in chief of the conservative RedState blog, is so enraged by the NRSC’s move that he's calling for conservative donors to boycott the campaign committee.
“If the NRSC thinks this is smart, we must not waste our time or energy with them,” Erickson wrote on his blog.
“Join me in pledging no money, no help, no aid, and no support for the NRSC’s efforts in the 2010 election cycle . . . We can disagree with the NRSC on many things, but this one is a bridge too far.”
For his part, Rubio, a 37-year-old Cuban-American who left the state House in 2008, plans to run an anti-establishment, low-dollar primary campaign that challenges Crist's conservative credentials and ties him to his Washington allies.
Minutes after Crist announced his bid, Rubio released a Web ad highlighting Crist’s support for President Obama’s economic stimulus package, a position that doesn’t sit well with many GOP primary voters.
“True bipartisanship is not ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’” the candidate told more than 150 people last week at the Republican Club of South Sarasota.
Although Rubio offers a contrast to Crist politically, he said he doesn’t plan to run a negative campaign. “I don't have anything against him personally. I don't believe in order for me to win the debate I have to convince you the other guy is a bad person,” he said.
“The Republican Party cannot be the party that is against the Democratic agenda. We cannot be the opposition to the Democratic agenda. We must be the alternative to the Democratic agenda.”
Rubio faces an uphill battle in his challenge to Crist. In a poll of registered Florida Republicans conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research after Crist announced his candidacy, 53 percent of respondents said that if the GOP primary were held today, they would vote for Crist, and only 18 percent chose Rubio. The rest were undecided.
And while Crist enjoys virtually universal recognition in the state, 56 percent of respondents said they don't recognize Rubio's name.
The Florida Senate primary is not the only race Senate Republicans are watching closely for clues about their party’s future. Similar battles are brewing in Missouri — like Florida a key swing state — Pennsylvania and Utah.
The family feud isn't limited to Senate races. Republicans are preparing for battle in gubernatorial primaries in Texas and New Jersey.
The GOP won't hold a monopoly on primary fights in 2010. But for a party at a crossroads, they could go a long way toward defining how the party looks in 2012.
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