, an African-American congressman whose early support from Bill Clinton helped dissuade other Democratic challengers from running for Florida's vacant Senate seat, handily turned back a challenge from real estate investment billionaire Jeff Greene
in the Sunshine State's Democratic senatorial primary.
On the Republican side, Marco Rubio
was easily nominated against token opposition, having chased Gov. Charlie Crist
out of the GOP Senate primary -- and out of the Republican Party itself -- earlier this year. The upshot of Tuesday's election returns is that Meek's defeat of Greene sets up a three-way race in November among Meek, Rubio, and Crist, with Rubio leading
in the early polling.
Meek is a 43-year-old Miami native who began his career in public service as a Florida state trooper, rising to the rank of captain. The son of popular former Miami-area congresswoman Carrie Meek, he served in the state legislature from 1995 to 2002 when he essentially inherited his mother's congressional seat in a sketchy maneuver in which she timed her resignation announcement so that her son was only viable candidate. The sleight-of-hand was probably unnecessary: Kendrick Meek was already popular in the district, which comprises the city's largest African-American community in the House of Representatives, and he remains so.
Meek now undertakes an electoral challenge that is much more ambitious in scope than defeating Greene, a political neophyte. The Democratic nominee starts the march toward November in a distant third place, but he is predicating his general election campaign on a strategy emphasizing that he is really running against two Republicans.
Of those two, Rubio is considered the more conservative. The son of Cuban émigrés, Rubio has been endorsed by the state's Tea Party organizations, and is being backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. And Crist, whose re-election as governor would have been a foregone conclusion, has proven crossover appeal, although his best case scenario probably would have been to have faced a pairing of Rubio and Greene. Polls have shown more Democrats would defect to Crist if Greene became the nominee instead of Meek.
Greene, a 55-year-old Massachusetts native and Harvard MBA who moved to Florida less than three years ago, spent an estimated $23 million -- almost all of it his own money -- on the campaign. That money is gone now, but there's more where it came from: Forbes estimated his net worth at $1.25 billion last year. A colorful personality -- Mike Tyson was the best man at his 2008 wedding -- Greene attempted to turn his great wealth into an advantage. He vowed not take contributions larger than $100, telling reporters
last May as he began his uphill campaign: "I'm not going to take a penny of special interest money."
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This approach was a savvy gambit for an amateur whose only previous foray into elective politics came in 1982
when he ran in a Republican primary for a Southern California congressional district occupied by a Democratic incumbent. But it wasn't enough to cover up an essential handicap: the very source of his money. Greene made himself wealthy in California real estate in the 1980s and 1990s, but he made himself super rich by investing in "credit default swaps." Essentially, Greene was betting -- successfully, as it turned out -- on a housing bubble that would crash the nation's real estate market and devastate the subprime mortgage market. This was an odd pedigree for a candidate in an economically hard hit state, especially one who now identifies himself as a Democrat.
Greene spent huge sums on a vast television ad campaign that characterized Meek as a corrupt and ineffectual "career politician." Meek fought back
, attacking Greene from the start as a carpetbagger who not only benefitted from Florida homeowners' misery, but as a shady operator who himself had helped cause the nation's current economic woes. Some of Meek's negative ads went further than the facts warranted
, such as the one alleging that financier Warren Buffett "called Greene's scheme 'financial weapons of mass destruction.'" (The Berkshire Hathaway chairman had indeed used such language in 2003 to describe credit default swaps, but he was discussing a particular proposed transaction that Greene had nothing to do with -- and never mentioned Jeff Greene at all.)
Ultimately, however, enough doubt was raised about how Greene made his money, and about his inexperience, his seeming attempt to waltz into Florida and buy a Senate seat that Democrats came home -- giving their party's nomination to a known quantity. For Meek, however, the real hard work lies ahead.