Running Strong

Florida’s primary results reveal the Tea Party’s strengths, and the Left’s weaknesses.

If Democrats and their allies were waiting for the Tea Party phenomenon to peter out on the big occasion, they will have to wait longer. This week’s primary election returns suggest that hostility to the Democrats’ government-expanding agenda remains palpable, and that the Tea Party and its favored candidates are running strong.

Florida may be the best showcase for the movement’s momentum. The Sunshine State is a must-win for both parties and indications are that conservatives have the edge heading into November. Their fortunes hinge on Tea Party favorite and Republican upstart Cuban-American Marco Rubio, who overcame what was once dismissed as a quixotic campaign to capture the Republican nomination.

Rubio, who briefly served as Chairman of the Florida House of Representatives, became the front-runner when he ousted Governor Charlie Crist from the primary and the party some months back. Young and charismatic, Rubio is running on a platform to impose fiscal sanity on Washington’s wanton and spendthrift ways, a message with obvious appeal in a time of soaring spending and surging national deficits. Not only are there Hispanic Republicans, pace Harry Reid, but one of them stands on the verge of a major victory this fall.

A Rubio loss would have the same disheartening effect to the Tea Party, but there are several factors to suggest that won’t be the case. Although Crist led the race during the early summer, polls show that Rubio has edged out to as high as an eight-point lead ahead of Crist. Rubio also has the tide of populism on his side, while Crist is running as an incumbent in an anti-incumbent year. That voters are unhappy with the current rate of spending is also a negative for Crist, who as governor supported and even heaped accolades on President Obama’s lavish stimulus spending.

Rubio may also benefit from a surprise result on the Democratic side. In the Democratic primary, Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek overcame the deep pockets and television onslaught of billionaire real estate developer Jeff Greene. Meek’s win could be seen as a boon for Rubio, as Democrats and independents split over supporting Crist and Meek.

The Tea Party further flexed its muscle in another Florida race. In a bitterly contested battle, Attorney General Bill McCollum lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to Tea Party candidate Rick Scott, a billionaire health-care entrepreneur. (The tenor of the campaign was so rancorous that it’s doubtful McCollum will even endorse his former opponent.)

Scott’s nomination for governor has been called a blow to Republicans, with Democrats deriding him as a “corrupt health-care CEO” and sarcastically thanking the Tea Party for backing such a vulnerable candidate. But braggadocio notwithstanding, Democrats should be worried by Scott’s win. Given their shady and corrupt handling of health care, not to mention the billions in premium costs they have dumped on average insurance holders under ObamaCare, Scott’s background in the private-sector may well be viewed by Florida voters as a breath of fresh air.

But the real story of the Florida election isn’t told in who won or lost, but by who voted at the polls. Despite a very contested Democratic senatorial primary, Politico’s political tracking had 300,000 more Republicans showing up to vote. In a highly competitive swing state, with a highly contested Senate race, Democrats were a third as likely to vote as Republicans – a disastrous scenario for the Left.

This number is reflective of a number of things. Energized by the Democratic agenda, Republicans are active and showing up at polls. The Tea Party, at least on the primary level, is an influential movement and capable of effecting the ballot box in November in the right races with the right candidate. Incumbent Democrats are having trouble holding seats and holding voters in the face of a lackluster economy and a legislative record that has left its base unsatisfied. Independents, meanwhile, are upset over an economy that has not only been stagnant but worsened in some respects over the last year. Republicans who have been profligate spenders or shaky on their fiscal bona fides are experiencing difficulty in their own primaries and being replaced by new fiscally conservative faces.

Nancy Pelosi famously dismissed the Tea Party as an “astro-turf” affair – a manufactured movement with no genuine support among the grassroots. But the Florida results are only latest sign that the Tea Party’s appeal runs deep, and that it’s opposition to the massive growth of government and a ballooning debt is finding real purchase with grassroots voters. The same conclusion is supported by current polling, which shows the Tea Party to be more popular than either mainstream party. And if the Tea Party proves to be the instrumental force behind the Republican rebound in 2010, Democrats will have little choice but to start taking the movement seriously. By then, of course, it may be too late.