Yet again, Florida is buttressing its well-earned reputation for high-stakes suspense and low-rent politics. The story du jour concerns the backstage maneuvers in the Senate race, a three-way roundelay starring tea-party Republican Marco Rubio, former Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist (the current lame-duck governor), and doomed Democrat Kendrick Meek. Indeed, Meek’s candidacy is so doomed that he strongly considered dropping out of the race at the eleventh hour, whereupon he would have asked all Democrats to back Crist as a way of stopping Rubio.
Got all that? But it gets way better. Turns out, the guy who asked Meek to drop out was Bill Clinton. He’s an old friend of the Meek family – Kendrick’s mother was a longtime African-American congresswoman who stuck by Bill when Bill was under Republican siege during the Monica Lewinsky scandal (Carrie Meek, 1998: “This process is unfair…Goodness and justice with prevail”) – so he had the right credentials to make the case.
And Clinton’s case was a good one: Kendrick Meek had no chance to win this Senate race (he’s been pulling roughly 15 percent in the polls); therefore, if he quit and endorsed Crist (who is already drawing moderate Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents), the combined voters might trump the Republican tea-partier…and a likely Republican Senate seat might well land in the blue column, thereby aiding the national Democrats in their bid to hang on to the Senate chamber.
In other words, Meek could fall on his sword for the good of the party. And, reportedly, he nearly agreed to take that fall, at Clinton’s behest. Twice. But ultimately he said no, fearing that he’d be tagged as a quitter. Today, he spun it this way on CNBC: “I’m not going to sell out on the people of the state of Florida.” And last night, he went on camera and declared: “I am looking forward to being the next U.S. senator from Florida.”
In his dreams. It has long been obvious, though it has remained largely unspoken, that Meek would be a weak Senate candidate for reasons going far beyond the fact that he’s a congressman from Miami with scant statewide name ID. Simply put, he is African-American, and would you care to guess how many black candidates have won Senate races below the Mason-Dixon line, in all the years since the Reconstruction era?
In recent times, three qualified southern blacks have sought Senate seats, only to come up short: Ron Kirk in Texas (he lost in 2002 to John Cornyn), Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee (he lost in 2006 to Bob Corker), and Harvey Gantt in North Carolina (he lost in 1990 and 1996 to Jesse Helms). Indeed, only two black Democrats have ever won Senate races anywhere – both times in Illinois: Carol Mosley Braun and Barack Obama.
Have some of the southern voters thought about race on election day? You decide. Jesse Helms infamously exploited that factor when he ran against Gantt; in 1990, he ran a TV ad depicting a pair of white hands crumpling a job application, coupled with the on-screen assertion that Gantt supported racial quotas. And in the tight ’06 Tennessee Senate race, Harold Ford was ambushed by a GOP ad that featured a winking white woman saying “Harold, call me!”
Thankfully, the Florida contest has been more of a high-road affair (Rubio, the tea-party Republican, is Latino; he’s also an accomplished, articulate politician). Nevertheless, the polls speak for themselves: Meek’s thin support is underpinned by African-American voters; most moderate white Democrats, as well as Democratic-leaning independents have swung to Crist. So it would be nuts to deny that race has been a factor; this split in the non-Republican vote was foreseeable many months ago. (I saw it, anyway, and wrote it.)
Clinton, given his longstanding popularity in the black community, was the only white Democrat who could credibly ask Meek to quit for the good of the party. But the move will probably backfire. Meek’s African-American voters are likely to bond with him on Tuesday, out of pique that the Democratic establishment (no doubt with a nod from the White House) tried to game the election at the eleventh hour. And, frankly, who could blame them?
I imparted audio thoughts this morning on “Radio Times,” which featured a one-hour preview of the midterm elections. I shared thoughts with fellow guests Bill Cook (who drove in from WHYY Delaware), and Scott Detrow (who drove in from WHYY Harrisburg). Marty Moss-Coane’s show (which can be heard here) was staged in front of a live audience. There was frequent laughter, presumably for the right reasons.