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Florida Democratic Primary Is `Critical' Test for November Senate Election

U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek is heading for a three-way Senate race in Florida in November with Republican Marco Rubio and Governor Charlie Crist, who’s running as an independent. First, Democrat Meek has to get past a billionaire real estate investor in his party’s primary.

The state’s Democrats today will choose between Meek, a black lawmaker from Miami, and developer Jeff Greene, whose parties aboard his 145-foot yacht, “Summerwind,” and friendships with boxer Mike Tyson and convicted Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss have been a focus of campaign news coverage. The vote will offer clues about how well Meek, 43, can turn out black and Hispanic voters in the general election.

“It’s a very critical vote for Democrats,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “They have to have a turnout rate among minorities that is almost equivalent of a presidential race,” she said. “There has been some concern about Meek’s ability to generate that kind of turnout.”

Another key to the general election, she said, “is what proportion of the Democratic vote” Meek “can keep from going to Crist, because Crist has been campaigning as a Democrat.” Crist won the governorship in 2006 as a Republican.

With Senator John McCain the likely winner over former Representative J.D. Hayworth in Arizona’s Republican Senate primary, Florida will be the focus of attention in the day’s elections, which also include contests in Alaska and Vermont.

Florida Races

Florida Republicans will select a gubernatorial candidate to succeed Crist, who is running for the Senate seat vacated last year by Republican Mel Martinez. Crist filed to run as an independent after polls showed he couldn’t win the Republican Senate primary against Rubio, a former Florida House speaker who has the support of Tea Party activists.

Meek, who succeeded his mother, Representative Carrie Meek, in 2003, led Greene 39 percent to 29 percent, with 28 percent undecided, in a Quinnipiac University poll conducted Aug. 21-22 of 757 likely Democratic primary voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

Meek has attacked Greene’s investments in credit-default swaps, which were used as insurance against losses in mortgage- backed securities. He noted in one advertisement that Warren Buffett once called such instruments “financial weapons of mass destruction.”

Greene purchased “several billion dollars worth of credit- default swaps” after learning about the investments from New York hedge-fund manager John Paulson, author Michael Lewis wrote in his book “The Big Short.”

Best Man

Press coverage of Greene has also focused on his lifestyle. Greene, who enlisted Tyson to be best man at his wedding, acknowledged in a 2008 interview with Forbes.com that Fleiss lived in his house for a year before his marriage. He told Forbes “it probably doesn’t look good for a single guy to have had Heidi living with me, but we weren’t dating.”

The Florida Republican primary for governor pits Attorney General Bill McCollum against investor Rick Scott, former chairman and chief executive officer of Columbia/HCA HealthCare Corp., who last year headed a group that opposed President Barack Obama’s health-care legislation.

Without mentioning Scott by name, presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs last year accused a leader of the group, Conservatives for Patients Rights, of bragging about “organizing and manufacturing” anger at town-hall meetings on the legislation in August 2009.

Medicare Fraud

McCollum, a former congressman, raised the issue of Columbia HCA’s involvement in Medicare fraud as part of what MacManus called “character assassination” between the two candidates.

HCA-The Health Care Co., as the Nashville-based company was called in 2000, paid $840 million to settle criminal and civil charges that it defrauded government health-care programs. In 2003, the company, renamed HCA Inc., paid $631 million in civil penalties to settle charges of filing false Medicare claims and agreed to reimburse $250,000 to cover overpayment claims.

Scott, a political newcomer, tried to pin the label of Washington insider on McCollum, a former House member and twice an unsuccessful Senate candidate.

McCollum led Scott 39 percent to 35 percent in the Aug. 21- 22 Quinnipiac poll of 771 likely Republican primary voters. The winner will face Alex Sink, a Democrat who is Florida’s chief financial officer, in the general election.

McCain Leads

In Arizona, border security was the major issue in the Senate primary, where voter discontent pushed McCain, 73, to reverse his previous support for an immigration-law overhaul.

Hayworth, 52, a radio talk-show host, has long advocated curbing illegal immigration. McCain, who in 2007 sought a bipartisan compromise for revising immigration law, said securing the U.S. border against illegal crossings was a condition for dealing with undocumented immigrants.

A Rasmussen survey of 595 likely Republican primary voters on July 21 showed McCain leading Hayworth by 20 points. That compares with a 5-point lead McCain held over Hayworth in an April survey by Rasmussen.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski is favored to win her state’s Republican primary today over Joe Miller, a Fairbanks lawyer endorsed by the state’s former governor, Sarah Palin. In Vermont, five Democrats are vying to run for governor in November against the lone Republican candidate, Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie.

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jarowley@bloomberg.net

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