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Money and Mud: A Preview of Florida’s Two Big Statewide Primaries

Today’s Florida primary features two marquee statewide races, one in each party, and a host of congressional contests. The overall atmosphere, however, is one of jaded cynicism and much-expressed contempt for the cost and negativity of this year’s campaigns. Turnout may not reach 20%.

There’s little doubt this mood is being driven by the Republican gubernatorial and Democratic senatorial races, both of which pit “establishment” candidates against wildly free-spending “outsiders” in campaigns dominated by bitterly personal attacks and counter-attacks. The “insiders,” Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek, are the best bet to win today, though McCollum’s not a safe bet. Largely overshadowed by these slugfests, and by the general election rivalry between Republican Senate candidate Marco Rubio and incumbent Gov. Charlie Crist, running for the Senate as an independent, are many down-ballot races, which I will not get into in this post. But certainly House candidates have made a bid for attention; one’s being called mentally ill by her opponents, while another was robbed at gunpoint while waiting to campaign at a church.

Without question, this election year in Florida was transformed by the late entry of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, a former hospital executive and anti-“ObamaCare” lobbyist, and Democratic Senate candidate Jeff Greene, the king of credit default swaps.

Scott has shattered every Florida campaign spending record by a sizable margin, spending $39 million of his own money and benefitting from a family trust that channeled another $11 million into a 527 organization that’s bought ads attacking McCollum. Until Scott appeared, McCollum was slowly drifting towards the nomination after a long career of party service in Congress, as a two-time Senate candidate, and as Attorney General. Scott immediately ran ads calling McCollum a relic of politics-as-usual, and identified himself with the Tea Party movement. Overwhelmed by Scott’s spending and facing political extinction, McCollum (with the backing of most of the state’s GOP establishment, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, along with 2008 presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee) fought back with ads drawing attention to the huge Medicare fraud fines paid out by Scott’s Columbia-HCA hospital chain. The back-and-forth has definitely eroded both candidates’ approval ratings, to the tangible benefit of likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink, who’s held a narrow lead in recent polls over both Republicans in a three-way match that also includes independent Bud Chiles.

Polls have shown Scott doing better than McCollum among self-identified conservatives, and among younger voters, so turnout patterns will matter, with a higher turnout probably benefitting the “outsider” in this closed primary. Overall, McCollum led by a 45-36 margin in the final pre-primary poll from Mason-Dixon; and by 39-35 in a Quinnipiac poll released about the same time. Scott led 47-40 in a late poll from PPP.

McCollum’s regional base is in the Orlando area; Scott’s a recent transplant to Florida, but lives on the Gulf Coast in Naples.

In the Democratic Senate race, Jeff Greene, who is reportedly a billionaire (mainly from profits made in successful anticipation of a housing market collapse), has spent $23 million of his own money, roughly four times the pre-primary budget of Meek, who, like McCollum, was the presumptive nominee in the early going. As with Scott, Greene’s heavy spending initially vaulted him into a lead in the polls, but then counter-attacks from Meek, and bad publicity about his past in the news media, brought him back to earth. In the latter category, reports about his relationship with former boxing champ Mike Tyson, and Tyson’s behavior during a long cruise on Greene’s yacht, has been a perpetual headache, compounded by another report that the yacht had actually docked in Cuba (a definite no-no for someone running for office in Florida).

While Greene’s tried to shift attention to alleged corruption involving Meek and his mother, former congresswoman Carrie Meek–and more recently, accusing Meek of insufficient sympathy for Israel in a bid for South Florida Jewish voters–he’s been sinking in recent polls. He trailed Meek 42-30 in an August 17-19 Mason-Dixon poll; 29-39 in a Quinnipiac survey this weekend; and 27-51 in the final PPP poll. PPP showed Meek leading Greene 70-9 among African-Americans and 47-37 among white voters. Contributing to Meek’s popularity among “regular” Democrats has been endorsements from President Obama and former President Clinton.

Meek’s next challenge, of course, is to convince Florida Democrats–not to mention wealthy donors and the party poohbahs in Washington–to support him rather than independent candidate Charlie Crist. Right now Meek is running a dangerously poor third in three-way polls. And he probably can’t count on Marco Rubio or Charlie Crist helping him by hanging out with Mike Tyson on a yacht.