04/15/2010 04:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What About Kendrick Meek?

Why doesn't Kendrick Meek get more respect?

For the last few months, when talk turns to Florida, political pundits have focused on the meteoric rise of Marco Rubio over Charlie Crist in the state's Republican primary for Senate. And today, with a new poll from Quinnipiac University showing Rubio opening up "an elephant sized 56-33 lead" over Crist, the commentariat seems more taken with the possibility of Crist running as an independent. The same survey shows Crist with a not-quite-statistically-significant 32% to 30% lead over Rubio in a three-way race with Meek, trailing at 24%.

But largely lost in this discussion are two important findings: First, in the most likely match-up for the fall, Quinnipiac shows Rubio leading Kendrick Meek by just six percentage points (42% to 38%). That's roughly the same margin as on the current trend estimate on our chart (43.7% to 38.5%). By that measure, Meek currently runs closer to his likely Republican opponent than do incumbent Democratic Senators Reid (NV), Lincoln (AR), and Specter (PA).


Second, only about a quarter (26%) of the Florida voters surveyed by Quinnipiac currently know Meek well enough to rate him -- 18% rate him favorably, 8% unfavorably. Rubio is better known (58% can rate him), but Meek has far more room to grow, and Rubio's negatives are growing (36% favorable, 22% unfavorable). With four more months of a bruising primary battle still to come, that trend is likely to continue.

Consider some other factors that have gone largely unrecognized: Meek has so far raised a not-insignificant amount of money ($4.6 million as of December), and his campaign pulled off a bit of an historic first by qualifying for the ballot by collecting over 140,000 petitions rather than paying a $10,000 fee,

And then there is this potential wild card: Meek can make far bigger history by being the first African American elected Senator in Florida (and in the South since Reconstruction), a fact that is unlikely to be lost on Florida's Democratic base. While Democratic candidates nationwide may be up against an enthusiasm gap, Meek has a shot at generating the same sort of enthusiasm within Florida as benefited Obama in 2008 (with the side benefit of having all those first time voters that the Obama campaign registered two years ago). Meek's successful petition effort is a sign that his campaign is putting the requisite field mechanism into place for just such an effort.

If polls continue to show Meek running close to Rubio (or close to both Rubio and Crist in a three-way contest), the historic nature of his candidacy combined with Rubio's high national profile should combine to capture the attention and imagination of the Democratic small donor base nationwide. If that happens, Meek should have little trouble raising the funds necessary to saturate Florida's airwaves in the Fall.

Now I know, 2010 is not 2008. Obama won Florida by just two percentage points in a year when he had the wind at his back politically. This year, Obama's approval rating is under water in Florida, and the conservative base is the one fired up and ready to go, particularly with Rubio as the Republican nominee. DC handicappers also have their doubts about Meek, as is evident in Stu Rothenberg's skeptical take in Roll Call last week:

[I]t is difficult to imagine Meek winning in November. While he will talk often about his years in the Florida Highway Patrol, his record is relatively liberal, Democrats have lost ground in the state's generic ballot test and the recently enacted health care bill has received a very chilly reception in the state, including among seniors.

Meek is personally appealing, but he carries too much political baggage and was handed the Democratic nomination without a fight largely because Crist looked invincible when the race was taking shape.

Meek has a talented team, but the political landscape this cycle favors Republicans strongly, both nationally and in Florida. And that is likely to be decisive in November.

Maybe so. But I would keep an eye on this race.

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