Many Paths to Victory: Florida

How to Win in Florida: Yes We (Still) Can

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"A three-way race in a midterm election, 750,000 additional Democratic voters in the state of Florida, [and] I'm the only candidate of the four major candidates [who] hasn't run as a Republican in the past," Kendrick Meek, the Miami congressman who is now running for Senate, told me on a muggy Washington evening in June.

Is it so simple? Meek abandoned the safest of House seats and announced his Senate candidacy in January 2009, when Barack Obama was at the height of his popularity. But as the president's approval ratings sank, Florida's arch-conservative state House speaker, Marco Rubio, seized the Republican nomination with help from the Tea Party, leading Gov. Charlie Crist, formerly a moderate Republican, to launch an independent bid for the seat.

Unlike many other down-ticket Democrats, who find the president's sagging favorability a drag, Meek is looking forward to campaigning alongside Obama -- and as an unabashed progressive. While Meek's message stands out, he's not the only Democrat with the idea: Missouri's Robin Carnahan is running with Obama, too -- the president is expected to join her at campaign appearances several times before the election. (Compare a more typical competitive race, such as Brad Ellsworth's campaign in Indiana for the U.S. Senate, where Obama -- who won the state in 2008 -- will be conspicuously absent from the campaign.)

Meek's strategy of sticking with Obama is based, in part, on electoral math -- if he can win most of his party's base and some independents in the general election, he can become a senator with less than a majority of the vote. It also reflects his own inclinations: In Congress, Meek supported the stimulus, the health-care bill (with a public option), and energy reform. He has been outspoken against offshore drilling and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays in the military. As a state senator, he staged a sit-in at then-Gov. Jeb Bush's office in protest of a Republican attempt to eliminate affirmative action.

But just when Meek thought he had an unrivaled shot at the Democratic vote, a former Republican named Jeff Greene -- an investor who made billions betting against homes in Florida and elsewhere -- moved to the state and challenged Meek for the Democratic nomination. Meek's name-recognition remains low, but he and his staff seem to think that a feisty internecine fight can ensure Democrats get to know and like Meek. However, Crist's lead in general -- election polls could attract Democratic money and votes, both of which have helped keep him in statewide office since 2001.

Meek isn't nervous about losing the support of his base, though: He's scooped up key Democratic endorsements ranging from county commissioners to former President Bill Clinton. "In Florida, when the Democrats have the chance to vote for a progressive, they're going to vote for a progressive," Meek tells me before heading off to a House vote -- with his party,

of course.

-- Tim Fernholz

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