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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tale of Two Primaries

It’s another big primary day, with contests on tap in Arizona, Florida, Vermont, Alaska and Oklahoma (a runoff). You can read my pithy analysis of all these primaries over at FiveThirtyEight.
Here, though, I’d like to mention an extraordinary contrast in the tones exhibited in two primaries: the Democratic gubernatorial race in Vermont, and the Republican gubernatorial and Democratic Senate primaries in Florida.
The tilt in Vermont has many of the ingredients that often create nasty-fests. It’s very close, with all five candidates being viable, and most handicappers suggesting a four-way dead heat. There are some notable differences in the candidates, though they mostly agree on the issues of the day. Activists in Vermont’s famous Progressive Party (which to the delight of Democrats, has decided against running its own gubernatorial candidate this year) seem attracted to state senate president pro tem Peter Shumlin and former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and state senator Susan Bartlett have long been considered “centrists.” Though he’s been in public office, former Google exec Matt Dunne could have probably played the “outsider” pretty hard.
But this has been, best as I can tell, an exceptionally civil primary, with lots of debates, lots of substance, and lots of concern for party unity going forward.
Compare that to what’s been going on down in Florida, where both major parties have been torn apart by self-funders and the reaction to them. Rick Scott, a recent transplant to the state, parachuted into the Republican governor’s race not long before qualifying ended and began beating his chest as a self-proclaimed conservative outsider aligned with the Tea Party movement, and soon broke every spending record in Florida history. Poor old Bill McCollum, who’s trudged along in the party harness for decades, losing two Senate races but finally winning statewide as Attorney General in 2006, didn’t know what hit him. But even when it looked like Scott had left McCollum for dead, the Attorney General’s backers (which included former governor Jeb Bush and virtually the entire state party establishment) plotted a comback, and soon McCollum and the 527’s associated with him savagely went after Scott on his former company’s massive Medicare fraud fines. As McCollum climbed back into contention (he now leads in several late polls), both candidates’ negatives soared, and what originally looked like a Republican cakewalk in November’s now a dead heat.
But unfortuntately, the dynamics of the Scott-McCollum race have largely been replicated in the Democratic Senate primary between congressman Kendrick Meek and billionaire investor Jeff Greene. Like Scott, Greene barged into the Senate race very late with an open checkbook, and in an ad blitz that’s ultimately cost $23 million, Greene moved quickly into the lead. As noted in an earlier post here, Meek was spared much of the demolition work on Greene, thanks to media reports of Greene’s loosey-goosey lifestyle, complete with jaunts around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea with BFF Mike Tyson, and at least one apparently accidental jaunt to off-limits Cuba. Greene has fought back with charges that Meek and his mother, former congresswoman Carrie Meek, are, basically, crooks, but it hasn’t worked other than to lower the tone of the contest even more.
People who oppose campaign finance reform should take a long look at what’s happened in Florida this year and explain why it’s essential to the First Amendment to let wealthy people with virtually no connection to a constituency come in and turn elections into chainwaw massacres. But money-equals-speech fans aren”t the only culprits. Many political professionals love nothing more than to find a clueless self-funder who will write lavish checks while either deferring to the pros or flaming out quickly. Jeff Greene’s first chief strategist was the legendary Joe Trippi; his eventual replacement was Tad Devine, who was John Kerry’s general election campaign manager in 2004. It’s likely both men did enough research to realize that their candidate’s background doomed him to destruction, but in the meantime, the livin’ was easy; too bad the floundering Greene had to throw mud at Kendrick Meek as he sank in the polls.
All party primaries can’t be as civil as Vermont’s, but Lord-a-mercy, must so many of them be like Florida’s? Maybe so, as long as money talks so loud, and mud’s the only way to get the free media attention money can’t buy.

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