- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

Conservative challenger Marco Rubio has surged into a dead heat in his Florida Senate campaign against establishment-backed Charlie Crist in a primary battle that is the first major test of the growing power of the “tea party” movement.

Mr. Rubio’s once-underdog candidacy, which has been trailing far behind the better-financed Republican governor for months, is suddenly catching fire, helped by the conservative Club for Growth and an army of tea party activists drawn by his unequivocal anti-tax, anti-big government campaign.

The latest Rasmussen telephone poll showed Mr. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and Florida’s former speaker of the House, was tied among Republican primary voters, 43-43 percent.

Mr. Crist, in his first term as governor, is the hand-picked candidate of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, recruited and all but endorsed by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC’s chairman. His decision to run was widely seen as nailing down the open Senate seat for the Republican Party, and Mr. Rubio’s challenge was dismissed as a lost cause by the party’s right flank.

But Mr. Rubio unleashed a relentless barrage of attacks that challenged Mr. Crist’s conservative credentials, charging he had raised taxes to balance the state’s budget and embraced President Obama’s nearly $800 billion, waste-ridden, economic spending stimulus that was overwhelmingly opposed by Republicans in Congress.

For months, the nonstop attacks seemed to throw Mr. Crist on the defensive. So much so that at one point he denied he had endorsed Mr. Obama’s big-spending plan to get the economy moving again. But then the Club for Growth came in, running TV ads across the state showing Mr. Crist standing next to Mr. Obama at a Florida rally, fully endorsing the big spending pork-barrel bill.

The TV ads drew blood and elevated Mr. Rubio into a major candidate to be reckoned with, boosting his support from the Republican Party’s conservative base and tea party activists and organizers in particular.

Things went from bad to worse this month when Mr. Crist was asked if he would support Mr. Obama’s recent call - in the face of a 10 percent jobless rate - for a second similar stimulus spending bill. “It depends what’s in it,” he said.

Mr. Crist has badly underestimated the growing conservative mood of his state’s electorate toward Mr. Obama’s big-government policies, even for a so-called jobs bill in the midst of a deepening recession.

“What’s really exceptional at this stage of Mr. Obama’s presidency is the extent to which the public has moved in a conservative direction on a range of issues,” writes veteran pollster Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center at PewResearch.org.

Surprisingly, this trend has “emanated as much from the middle of the electorate as from the highly energized conservative right,” Mr. Kohut says - producing a “backlash against Obama policies that have expanded the role of governnment.”

The latest Rasmussen poll in the Crist-Rubio contest reflect Mr. Kohut’s findings. Earlier this year, soon after Mr. Crist announced his candidacy, he was flying high and all but assured of the GOP’s nomination for the Senate.

But as Mr. Rubio and the Club for Growth stepped up their fall ad campaign, Mr. Crist’s support began dropping from 53 percent in August to 49 percent in October. “The fact that Mr. Crist has fallen below 50 percent in a primary against a lesser known opponent suggests potential vulnerability,” Mr. Rasmussen said at the time.

Mr. Rubio is now viewed “very favorably” by 34 percent of likely primary voters, up from 18 percent who said that this summer. Mr. Crist, on the other hand, has seen his “very favorable” ratings drop to 19 percent.

“I believe voters are starting to realize that there are vast differences between me and Charlie Crist on a number of important issues,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement.

A few national party leaders have begun to break for Mr. Rubio, including South Carolina Jim DeMint. Republican campaign strategist Karl Rove noted in his Wall Street Journal column last week that he has donated to Mr. Rubio’s campaign, but says either Mr. Crist or Mr. Rubio “will likely hold the seat.”

But there is an even larger political struggle going on here for the soul of the Republican Party and its future ideological direction.

The party’s base has, to a large degree, turned against candidates that are too often willing to water down party principles for the sake of political expediency - as Mr. Crist has done on Mr. Obama’s failed stimulus plan. Like the campaign theme struck by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 campaign against President Gerald Ford, the Republican bedrock base wants the party’s policy positions to be drawn in bold colors, not “pale pastels.”

Andrew Kohut’s polling analysis accurately portrays the rightward trend of the nation’s electorate. There is a huge backlash building against the far-left policies of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress.

Mr. Obama’s job approval numbers fell this month into the 40s. Congress’ approval ratings are in the teens. The current outlook in the House is a Democratic loss of 20 to 30 seats, and elections handicapper Stuart Rothenberg says “Republican Senate gains are now looking likely.”

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent of The Washington Times.

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