CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Tea party favorite Marco Rubio capped his dramatic rise with an easy win Tuesday over Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek in the race for Florida's open Senate seat, keeping it with the GOP.
With 78 percent of precincts reporting, Rubio had about 50 percent of the vote, to 29 percent for Crist, who left the Republican Party earlier this year to run as an independent when polls showed him trailing in a GOP primary. Democratic nominee Meek had 19.6 percent.
"We make a great mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican party," Rubio told supporters at a rally, referring to his and other GOP wins around the country. "What they are is a second chance, a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."
Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House, 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.
Moments before the race was called, former Gov. Jeb Bush walked into the room where Rubio was watching returns and said, "Congratulations!"
"Why? Do you guys know something we don't?" Rubio replied. When news agencies declared him the winner, the room erupted with roars. Rubio kept looking at the television and joked. "C'mon! I'm trying to hear about Kentucky!"
Bush said he supported Rubio from the beginning.
"I'm so proud of him and he ran a spectacular race. "It's a great day for the conservative cause. New people with new thinking, new ideas – 21st century solutions."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called Rubio to congratulate him. Rubio told Cornyn, "You're going to be hearing from me a lot."
Meek was the first candidate to call and concede.
"You're a very worthy opponent with a tremendous amount of dignity and manhood. You've won the respect of a lot of people," Rubio said. "A lot of people learned a lot of lessons from you the last two months, including myself."
Rubio told Crist he was a worthy opponent and said he wants to visit him in Tallahassee later this month.
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.
"When you're 35 points down in the polls and the only people who think you can win live in your house, and four of them are under the age of 10, you better know why your running," Rubio said in his victory speech.
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. Then Rubio's fundraising and poll numbers increased to the point that Crist was the underdog. 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.
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.