Florida primaries: establishment candidates picking up steam

Recent polls show Rep. Kendrick Meek with an increasingly comfortable lead in Florida’s Democratic Senate primary. In the GOP gubernatorial primary, state Attorney General Bill McCollum also appears to have an edge.

J Pat Carter/AP
Florida governor hopeful Rick Scott and his wife, Ann, make a campaign stop in Miami, Friday. Scott and his opponent, Bill McCollum, are now in the final frenzied days of the their tight Republican primary race, hoping to sway the sizable chunk of undecided voters.

Florida has gone on a wild political ride this year, with the conservative “tea party” movement driving Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party and into the independent column in his bid for the Senate.

But Floridians will have to wait till November to see where that ride ends.

In the meantime, some heated primary races – which will be decided next Tuesday – are giving voters another pretty good show. And in both cases, the establishment favorites are recovering and steadily building support after initially strong challenges by wealthy outsiders.

In the Democratic Senate primary, recent polls show Rep. Kendrick Meek with an increasingly comfortable lead of seven to 15 percentage points over controversial billionaire investor Jeff Greene.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary, state Attorney General Bill McCollum is now leading former health-care industry executive Rick Scott by an average of 44 percent to 38 percent on Pollster.com. Mr. Scott, a first-time candidate, surged into the lead in June as the shiny new object of Florida politics, against the familiar face, Mr. McCollum. McCollum represented Florida in Congress for 20 years, part of the time in leadership positions.

The start of early voting on Aug. 9 could help explain why McCollum and Representative Meek are now doing better. Voters are paying closer attention. In addition, a wave of negative advertising has hit the airwaves, denting in particular the images of the outsiders.

The rich candidates, Mr. Greene and Scott, both have controversial résumés. Greene made his millions investing in the credit default swaps linked to subprime mortgages, which contributed to the financial meltdown in 2008. Scott got rich in the hospital industry; his company, Columbia/HCA, settled in a Medicare fraud suit for $1.7 billion in the 2000s, but not before Scott was ousted.

Self-funders have done well in other campaigns around the country this cycle, including in California, Michigan, and Connecticut. But in Florida, vast personal wealth could end up a negative.

“A lot of people are worried that it looks like people are buying an office, at a time when people are struggling,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist based at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

But with Greene and Scott, there’s also the weirdness factor. Greene moved to Florida only in 2008, having once run for Congress in California as a Republican. Boxer Mike Tyson was the best man at his wedding. Then there’s his 145-foot yacht, which has been ably satirized as appearing to have a life of its own. Lindsay Lohan has spent time on it. Five years ago, the yacht is widely alleged to have damaged a coral reef system in Belize, though Greene now says it never happened.

Scott, in addition to his controversial past as a hospital mogul, is not reassuring Republican voters with his recent behavior. On Thursday evening, he dropped out of a debate with McCollum in Boca Raton just two hours before it was supposed to start – and sent his mother instead, the south Florida Sun-Sentinel reported. Two weeks earlier, Scott was a no-show at another event in Boca Raton, this one sponsored by the Christian Family Coalition.

Meek and McCollum, meanwhile, have been the beneficiaries of establishment support. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is backing McCollum, and Meek, a youthful-looking former state trooper, has the support of President Obama and former President Clinton, both of whom have campaigned for him in Florida recently.

Meek’s and McCollum’s resurgence is bad news for Governor Crist and Alex Sink, Florida’s chief financial officer and the expected Democratic nominee for governor. Both would prefer to face the outsiders with the complicated pasts. Polls show Crist and Ms. Sink in tighter races if the establishment favorites win their primaries.

Crist’s race is particularly complicated, as he is the independent in the race trying to peel off enough Democratic and independent votes to best the Republican, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, the tea-party favorite. But Crist may have a hard time luring away enough loyal Democrats if Meek is the Democratic nominee, even though he may be a weak one.

The governor’s race is also shaping up to be a three-way contest, with Bud Chiles, son of the late former Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), running as an independent. Mr. Chiles has polled consistently in the double digits, perhaps just enough to tip the race. But handicappers still give Sink a slight edge.

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