CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Republican Marco Rubio easily defeated Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek to take Florida’s open Senate seat on Tuesday, keeping it with the GOP.
An Associated Press analysis of preliminary exit poll data showed that the tea party favorite beat Democratic nominee Meek and Crist, who left the Republican Party earlier this year to run as an independent when polls showed him trailing in a GOP primary. With 20 percent of precincts reporting, Rubio had 50 percent of the vote, Crist had 29 and Meek 19.
The victory culminates a dramatic rise for Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House who was given little chance to defeat Crist when he announced his candidacy last year. Rubio will replace George LeMieux, who was appointed to the seat last year after Mel Martinez resigned.
Rubio built momentum through tea party rallies, driving around the state on a tight budget and often without staff to talk to any conservative group that would listen. His message was consistent: President Barack Obama’s domestic spending and health care policies are a disaster and the nation will spiral downward if spending isn’t controlled.
Party leaders in Tallahassee and Washington tried to force him out of the race so then-Republican Crist could walk to the nomination. But Rubio believed Crist wasn’t a principled conservative and used the image of the governor hugging Obama at a rally to push for the $787 billion stimulus package to whittle away at Crist’s support.
For months, Crist acted as if he were the only candidate in the race as he raised millions of dollars. Then Rubio’s fundraising and poll numbers increased to the point that Crist was the underdog.
Crist immediately went negative, mocking Rubio’s use of a party-issued American Express card for personal expenses, accusing him of steering money to a Miami university and hospital and later taking jobs with each. He said Rubio stuffed pork in state budgets and wasn’t really a fiscal conservative.
Nothing worked. Meanwhile, Meek struggled to gain traction as the media focused on the intense battle for the Republican nomination.
The race took a new twist just before the April deadline to qualify for the ballot. With polls showing Rubio leading Crist by about 20 percentage points in the GOP primary, Crist announced he would run as an independent and later changed his voter registration to no party affiliation.
Crist’s move to the middle helped him siphon away Democratic votes from Meek, but Republican voters who supported Crist in the past abandoned him in droves. The split Democratic vote only helped Rubio. Meek, meanwhile, desperately tried to convince Democrats that Crist was still the conservative he claimed to be just months earlier.
“Once Crist changed his party because he knew he could not beat Rubio, well, Crist will never get my vote again. And Meek, well I never heard any meat and potatoes,” said Bob Noah, 59, of Pembroke Pines, an independent who voted for Rubio.
But Chris Dowling, 59, of Orlando is a Democrat whom Crist won over.
“I liked him as governor. I think he’s centrist,” Dowling said.