Florida Democratic Senate candidates are finding that grabbing attention opposite the hottest political race of the primary season is no easy feat.
The high-profile contest between moderate Gov. Charlie Crist and former State House Speaker and conservative poster-boy Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate has obscured the primary race between U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and former six-term Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre.
The Democrats have mostly focused their efforts on attacking the Republicans rather than defining each other.
“There is a battle for the soul of the Republican Party going on and Florida is ground zero for the fight,” said Kenneth Quinnell, New Media Director for Meek’s campaign, in an email. “That may grab headlines, but it doesn’t help Floridians meet the challenges they face in this tough economy.”
A source within the Ferre campaign said, “Ferre has shot his way into the media by being more aggressive in attacking Crist, his ethics, and policy failures than Marco Rubio has.”
Neither Democrat has produced optimal results with this strategy; both candidates would lose today to either Republican by nearly identical, double-digit margins, according to a Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates poll conducted between Jan. 27-28.
Ferre and Meek must develop new strategies to break into the news cycle and reach more voters statewide in order to win the Democratic primary nomination on Aug. 31.
Meek is widely considered the favorite, with the strong support of the Democratic establishment and a huge money advantage, having raised $1.2 million last quarter and holding $2.7 million cash on hand.
Ferre raised $100,000 in his first quarter and has about $60,000 left, according to FEC reports, but has a potential fundraising base in Puerto Rico because of his strong support of statehood, a position favored by businessmen in the territory, and the legacy of his uncle, former Puerto Rican Gov. Luis A. Ferre.
A recent poll by Schroth Eldon & Associates found Meek leading Ferre 27 to 12 percent. The same polling firm found Meek leading Ferre 26 to six percent when Ferre entered the contest in November. Ferre has doubled his support, but the big story here is that the race remains wide open.
Meek, 43, and Ferre, 74, are launching new efforts to gain traction and increase their name identification. Meek’s campaign announced last week a bold public relations move: Meek, a longtime fan of racing, will be the lead sponsor of NASCAR driver Mike Wallace’s race car at the Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 13.
“NASCAR is an industry with strong ties to Florida that generates significant revenue for our economy,” said Quinnell. “This sponsorship is a recognition of that fact and a sign that Kendrick intends to speak to and for all Floridians.”
Ferre’s campaign expressed doubts about this strategy. “No one will confuse Kendrick Meek for a redneck just because he sponsors a NASCAR,” said the Ferre insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Meek’s campaign will likely continue to disregard Ferre’s candidacy. Asked if the primary race would be competitive, Quinell said, “That type of thing is for the pundits and bloggers to decide. Kendrick Meek is focused on being a champion for the people of Florida and defeating Crist and Rubio — the very people who got Florida into the fiscal mess it’s in now.”
Ferre, a moderate Democrat, has spent considerable time attacking Crist and much less attacking Meek, but his campaign appears to be getting more aggressive and moving to the left.
Ferre’s campaign has looked to foster an outsider image, drawing distinctions with Meek on hot-button issues by coming out against both the troop escalation in Afghanistan and the healthcare reform bills in Congress. Ferre said in a recent press release that the House and Senate healthcare bills “do not live up to the promises that President Obama and Democrats sold the American people in 2008.”
Meek supports the troop increase in Afghanistan and voted for the House Democrats’ healthcare plan.
Ferre also plans to attack Meek on his relatively thin legislative record and reports that he attempted to divert more than $5 million in federal money to his mother’s lobbying client. His mother, Carrie Meek, held his House seat for 10 years before entering the private sector.
Florida journalists have jumped at every opportunity to write Ferre’s political obituary. News that Ferre’s campaign manager, Todd Wilder, resigned in early January to care for his sick mother prompted a probing headline from Beth Reinhard in the St. Petersburg Times: “Time to put a fork in Maurice Ferre’s Senate campaign?”
Six months ago, the Miami Herald’s Adam Smith wrote that Rubio’s low initial fundraising numbers “cast doubt on [his] Senate bid.” But today Rubio leads Crist by 14 points among Republicans, according to a poll conducted by Fabrizio from Jan. 27-28. Six months from now, the Democratic primary will be a fundamentally different race.