Florida: Land of Ugly Primaries

Two of the country's messiest primary races will take place Tuesday, both of them, ironically, in the happily named Sunshine State. Each party has seen its share of the ugliness.

In the already-confusing multi-way Senate race, billionaire Jeff Greene angered the Democratic establishment by launching a primary challenge to Congressman Kendrick Meek in April, the day after Gov. Charlie Crist broke from the Republican Party to run as an independent, and long after Meek had established himself as the Democrats' candidate to win this race, having built his team and campaigned since last year.

Greene brought considerable baggage into the race--he made his money in real estate investments during the subprime crisis, hosted Heidi Fleiss at his house, and had Mike Tyson serve as his best man--and used his vast personal wealth to air TV ads accusing Meek of being a "crooked" and "corrupt" Washington insider. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee openly opposes him and didn't deny having circulated opposition research on Greene in an attempt to prevent him from entering the race. The White House took sides, too, and President Obama held a fundraiser for Meek when he traveled to Miami last week.

The intrigue continued to mount after Greene's entrance: the billionaire fired big-name strategist Joe Trippi less than a month before his primary election day, after Trippi orchestrated the look and strategy of Greene's campaign, hiring in Trippi's place Tad Devine, a former presidential campaign strategist for Al Gore and John Kerry. The day he did so, Greene was tied with Meek in major polls; since then, his strange and sudden candidacy has tailed off. Meek now leads by either 10 or 23 percentage points, depending on which poll one reads. 42% of Democratic primary voters see him favorably, and Democrats in Florida and DC will hope that Greene's negative ad campaigns haven't Meek for the general election.

Democrats saw an opportunity in Florida as Rubio mounted his successful challenge, though Meek has failed to make a charge in polls. He trails significantly, though his numbers aren't any worse now than they were before Greene entered the race.

As ugly as the Democratic Senate primary has been, the Republican gubernatorial race has probably been worse.

Ugliness in that primary has caused the Republican Governor's Association to step in, and it has seen the state's Tea Party movement divided.

State Attorney General Bill McCollum is running against another wealthy outsider, health-care businessman Rick Scott, with both claiming support from Tea Partiers in the state. McCollum has pressured Scott to release copies of his deposition in a lawsuit filed this summer against a chain of health care clinics called Solantic, which Scott helped found. A doctor claimed Solantic was falsely using his medical license to commit Medicare fraud (which may resonate in this race, since Scott's former company was fined $1.7 billion for Medicare fraud after Scott's departure in 1997; Scott released a 60-second ad addressing McCollum's attacks on that settlement). The suit was filed by a Tallahassee attorney who had donated to both McCollum and Democratic candidate Alex Sink. (See the Orlando Sentinel's summary of this whole mess here.)

Pushing this Solantic attack, South Florida Tea Party Chairman Everett Wilkinson (a prominent figure in the Florida Tea Party movement and a McCollum supporter) disrupted an anti-Crist rally at which Scott was speaking, talking over Scott to ask why the candidate wouldn't release copies of his deposition. This caused a ruckus among Tea Partiers in Florida, some of whom support Scott, and Wilkinson was kicked off a Tea Party Google listserv. The video shows an ugly scene.

Bad blood has fermented, meanwhile, between Scott and the Republican Party of Florida. Scott has taken out ads claiming McCollum knew more than he let on about disgraced former state party Chairman Jim Greer (who defrauded the party and steered money to a consulting firm he was involved in). Current Chairman John Thrasher has in turn bashed Scott in e-mails to supporters, and Scott has accused Thrasher of handling the party much like Greer did. Republican Governors Association Chairman Haley Barbour stepped in last week to protest Scott's McCollum/Greer ads.

Polling indicates a tight race: Quinnipiac shows McCollum ahead by four percentage points, while Public Policy Polling shows Scott ahead by seven.

All this comes as Florida Republicans are trying to unite behind Senate candidate Marco Rubio against both Meek and Crist, and behind lower-profile candidates in a handful of competitive House races. Rubio will need solid backing from an energized Tea Party movement to win his race, but the governor's contest has become a distraction, just over two months from Election Day.

Florida's mayhem has been troubling to both parties, and the divisions could continue after Tuesday's elections. Given how personal these campaigns have gotten, it seems unlikely that the losers will swiftly endorse their primary foes.

Then again, in terms of party unity and seemliness in Florida, it appears things can't get any worse.