Commentary: Can you say Senator Meek?
If you'd told me a year ago that Democrats would find themselves within striking distance of picking up a Senate seat in Florida, running an African-American congressman no one outside his district had ever heard of, I'd probably have asked you what you were smoking.
But that was before Florida's still-popular Republican governor effectively got booted out of his own party in a conservative takeover that could end with Republicans grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.
My conservative friends have spent much of the past year dumping on poor Gov. Charlie Crist, the once-unbeatable future senator, and heaping praise and attention on his fiery conservative opponent, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. Rubio has been the darling of conservative chatterers and tea party activists everywhere, amassing a commanding lead over the more moderately conservative Crist.
Thursday's decision by the governor to ditch the party label and run as an independent is probably his only shot of making it to the general election and, ultimately, to the Senate. But it is hardly a sure thing. With only 22 percent of its electorate not registered as either Democrat or Republican, and with Democrats substantially outnumbering Republicans, Crist's move makes Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek's job a whole lot easier than Rubio's.
It takes 33 percent of the electorate -- plus one vote -- to win a three-way election. Meek needs the Democratic base. That's all he needs. In what should be a Republican-leaning year, he doesn't need a single Republican or independent vote. That's a much easier task for a Democrat this year than winning 50 percent plus one.
As for Rubio, he has to walk a pretty tricky line. There just aren't enough tea partiers in the state for him to win from the hard right. If he sticks with the fiery rhetoric that gave him the lead in the Republican primary, he risks pushing everyone to the left of him into Crist's column. If he tones it down, he loses his base and his credibility.
Watching Rubio wiggle around on the immigration issue is a case in point. Arizona's passage of its controversial (and almost certainly unconstitutional) state law making it a crime to be an illegal immigrant and authorizing police to detain individuals for that reason alone (even if they have committed no other crime) is splitting the Republican Party pretty much in half.
Popular former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has come out and criticized the law, which tells you something about how at least one smart politician from that state sees it. As for Rubio, he's dancing right now -- not exactly saying he's for it, not exactly saying he's against it and, most strikingly for a guy who claims to be against big government, calling on the federal government to do more.
His statement this week reads like classic waffle politics: "States certainly have the right to enact policies to protect their citizens, but Arizona's policy shows the difficulty and limitations of states trying to act piecemeal to solve what is a serious federal problem. From what I have read in news reports, I do have concerns about this legislation."
So much for federalism. Your only source is news reports? How about reading the law itself? Are you for it or against it? Do you think it's constitutional or not? Rubio's most ardent supporters have opinions on those issues. Many of the swing voters who decide elections also have opinions, and they aren't necessarily the same ones. Giving people three candidates to choose from means they don't have to compromise. Rubio's path to Washington got a lot more complicated this week, and Meek's got a lot more straightforward.
As for Crist, he's taking his best shot. If ever there were a year to belong to no party, this might be it.
Susan Estrich's e-mail address is email@example.com.