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Florida's Red-Hot Races Are Tuesday's Main Event

McCollum (left) and Scott have been slugging away at each other for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Wilfredo Lee
McCollum (left) and Scott have been slugging away at each other for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Voters will go to the polls Tuesday for runoff elections in Oklahoma and primaries in four states, including Arizona, where incumbent Republican Sen. John McCain appears poised to swamp a challenger for his party’s endorsement.

In Alaska, polls indicate incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski is likely to prevail over political novice and Tea Party favorite Joe Miller, whose endorsement from former Gov. Sarah Palin appears to have failed to advance his candidacy.

But no races are being followed more closely than those in Florida, where wealthy outsiders from both sides of the aisle have nearly upended the fortunes of political veterans in big races that have gotten increasingly ugly -- even given the historically rough-and-tumble politics of the Sunshine State.


Nasty Times

"Every election year I say I haven't seen it this bad," says Democrat Dick Batchelor, a longtime Florida political analyst and former state representative. "But this year sets a record for animosity, and all the attacks are personal -- and in every race from county commissioner to U.S. Senate."

The state's airways have been saturated with attack ads launched in the still-close race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, which pits state Attorney General Bill McCollum, a former congressman, against health care magnate Rick Scott.

McCollum has battered Scott over a $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine paid by a health care company he previously headed. And Scott has attempted to paint McCollum as a career politician and "creature of government" who would "do absolutely anything to win."

Up until a few weeks ago, Republican politicos were predicting that Scott would win -- given his money and anti-establishment appeal. But polls signal that McCollum, who appeared initially blindsided by Scott's aggressive entry into the race, has made headway in recent weeks.


Most recent campaign finance reports show that the race between Scott and McCollum has been the state's most expensive governor's contest. Scott, who has a reported net worth of $218 million, has lent his campaign $49.9 million. McCollum has raised and spent about $21 million

Whoever emerges Tuesday, however, will have some work to do with voters going into the fall.

"This thing has been so negative and mean that people are disgusted," says Tampa-based Republican consultant and strategist April Schiff, about the McCollum-Scott battle. "Whoever comes out of this primary is going to be bruised and battered, and with a lot of baggage that can be used against him."

Democrats, meanwhile, have been sitting on the sidelines and enjoying the show.

The party has settled on its gubernatorial candidate, Alex Sink, a former banker and now the state's chief financial officer. (She faces a nominal challenge in the Democratic primary from repeat candidate Brian Moore, who ran for president as a socialist in 2008.) A new ad from the Sink campaign features Scott and McCollum look-alikes arguing loudly in the background, accusing each other of being frauds. Says Sink: "I don't know about you, but I've had just about enough of politicians attacking each other. The fight I'll be having as governor is for you"

Batchelor says that Sink can portray herself as the "nonsquabbling adult in this thing."

"If McCollum wins, I don't see an endorsement coming from Scott -- and if I were McCollum, I don't think I'd want one," Batchelor says. "It would be like slow dancing with a porcupine." Reminiscent, he says, of the 2004 hug McCain gave to his presidential nemesis at the time, George W. Bush.

Lawton "Bud" Chiles, son of the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, is also running for governor -- as an independent.

Greene has spent millions trying to win the Democratic nomination for Senate.
Chris O'Meara
Greene has spent millions trying to win the Democratic nomination for Senate.

Senate Calculations

In the race for the Democratic nomination for Senate, four-term Rep. Kendrick Meek and real estate billionaire Jeff Greene have been beating each other up. Greene has reportedly spent nearly $30 million of his own money to defeat Meek, the choice of the party establishment. Meek has raised $6.9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics website, and had spent just over $4.7 million as of Aug. 4.

Polls show that in recent weeks Meek, son of a popular former congresswoman, has taken a comfortable lead over Greene in what once was a close context. Greene has seen his once-promising fortunes sink over a 2007 yacht trip to Cuba and his evolving explanations about the excursion's purpose.

The issue has been exhaustively documented by the nonpartisan fact-check website, which concluded that Greene pulled "a complete flip-flop" with his statements about the trip -- saying he wasn't aboard, then that he was, then that it was a humanitarian mission and finally that the boat made a detour because it needed repairs.

The winner will take on Republican turned independent Gov. Charlie Crist and GOP nominee Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite.

A Meek win in Tuesday's primary, says Lew Oliver, chairman of Florida’s Orange County Republican Party, would be "the answer to the GOP's prayers."

Some Democratic fundraisers have already held events for Crist, once seen as a rising Republican star. And Meek is seen as having problems drawing independents and moderate Democrats and Republicans. That would give Rubio, who has been working to moderate some of his earlier Tea Party-friendly positions, opportunity.

"The Democrats will go home to Meek, and he will successfully prevent Crist from winning," Oliver says.

Meek had been behind in polls, but surveys show he's made gains in recent weeks.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Meek had been behind in polls, but surveys show he's made gains in recent weeks.

If Meek wins Tuesday, as expected, strategists in his party say that he will have to capitalize on winning the race and within weeks make a case to the voters that would bring him up to at least 20 percent in three-way polls with Crist and Rubio. Current polls that test a three-way race show Meek badly trailing both Crist and Rubio.

Poll averages on have Crist and Rubio both drawing around 35 percent of support for those surveyed, with Meek at under 16 percent. The seat is open because current Sen. George LeMieux, a Republican who was appointed by Crist to serve out the term of retired GOP Sen. Mel Martinez, is not seeking election.

Republicans had expected to easily hold the "Martinez seat" but have been in turmoil over a scandal in which former state party Chairman Jim Greer has been charged with fraud and money-laundering for allegedly steering party money into an account for his own use.

"It’s been a horrible year with Greer, Crist, and the shambles left behind," Schiff says. "But it’s being turned around pretty quickly -- we have strong new leadership trying to unite the party."

Crist, a moderate who left the party after honchos got behind Rubio for the Senate race, has denied knowledge of Greer’s alleged scheme.

Money's Not Enough?

It's clear that without their personal fortunes, neither Greene nor Scott would be competitive.

With Meek poised to win, and McCollum holding an edge over Scott going into Tuesday, it appears that money may not be enough to catapult those well-heeled challengers -- who have had to answer questions about flaws in their resumes -- into the fall general election.

But its importance can't be underestimated.

"Were it not for Rick Scott's company being fined for Medicare fraud, or if Greene was just a run-of-the-mill billionaire without all those skeletons in his closet, they would have won the nominations," Batchelor says.

The lesson? Oliver, the Orange County Republican, has a suggestion:

"We may learn in Florida that all the money in the world can't help if you have real problems on paper," he says. "It turns out you can't go and buy an office, and that's a lesson that all Americans probably would applaud."

But you can come close.

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