'Amnesty Mel' Exits

The first Republican retirement of the 2010 political season happened today, and it’s only 2008.  Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fl.) — called “amnesty Mel” by some of his critics for his soft position on illegal immigration — announced his future retirement at 11 am today.  

If the unusually early timing of Martinez’s announcement was a surprise, his exit was not.  My friends from Florida have been telling me this would happen for months.  With a recent Quinnipiac University poll showing only 36% of Sunshine State voters saying Martinez deserves re-election and 40% saying they would vote for someone else, Martinez was clearly one of the most vulnerable GOP senators scheduled to face the voters in 2010.

Why?  Although Martinez had an overall conservative voting record (lifetime American Conservative Union rating:  90%), the issues on which he was most closely identified hurt him.  The liberal media in Florida and nationwide slammed him for the role he played in getting Congress to pass a bill to save Teri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose role in the right-to-die controversy in 2004 was an international sensation.  In addition, Martinez clearly hurt himself with his party’s conservative grass-roots when he became a champion of the comprehensive immigration bill that died in the Senate in ’06.  Coming at a time when the Floridian was serving as general chairman of the Republican National Committee, his outspoken stand  over which many on the RNC took issue led several on the GOP’s governing panel to dub their chairman “Amnesty Mel.”  

As Martinez announced his retirement (for the euphemistically-standard reason of spending more time with his family), the “name game” of prospective successors started.  Former Gov. (1998-2006) Jeb Bush was an obvious name on the Republican side.  Now in private business, the younger brother of President Bush who is considered more conservative than either his brother or their father seems content to be out of politics.  Rep. Adam Putnam, who just stepped down as the chairman of the House Republican Conference, threw cold water on speculation he would run for the Senate.  Putnam, once considered one of the conservative stars in Congress, is more likely to run for the open position of state agriculture commissioner in 2010 and then be in line to seek the job he most wants:  the governorship in 2014, when Republican incumbent Charlie Crist (if he is re-elected in 2010) must by law step down.

State Attorney General Bill McCollum, beaten in a bitter primary for the Senate by Martinez in 2004, has long said he is interested only in running for re-election in two years.  But hours after Martinez’s announcement, McCollum told reporters he “would discuss with my family a race for this U.S. Senate seat.”

Those are the big name Republicans.  Florida sources tell me the eventual GOP nominee was more likely to come from a list of Republicans known less on the national scene:  House Speaker Marco Rubio, like Martinez a Cuban American, and a solid conservative who has clashed with Gov. Crist over his strong pro-environmental stance; former House Speaker Allan Bense, also a conservative stalwart; and two-term Rep. Vern Buchanan, a multi-millionaire car dealer whose spokeswoman told reporters he has been getting calls of encouragement.

Democrats will field a heavyweight contender.  Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the highest-elected Democrat in statewide office, was immediately boomed for nomination but sent out signals she wasn’t running.  Rep. Kendrick Meek, who is African-American, is “definitely looking into it,” according to his spokesman.  Dan Gelber, former state House Democratic leader, also gets immediate mention.  But Gelber just won a state senate seat and a U.S. Senate race could be considered moving too fast and too high.

At this point, the name gaining increasing attention as Senate timber is that of two-term Rep. Ron Klein, a decidedly liberal Democrat from the Palm Beach area.  With more than $1.8 million in his campaign kitty, Klein could quickly become known statewide and even wrap up the nomination if no better-known contender gets in.  Privately, Republicans hope Klein is a “go;” a Senate race on his part could dramatically raise the chances on their recapture of a seat that was in GOP hands for 26 years before Klein won it.  Their almost certain candidate for an open district is much-decorated retired Colonel Allen West, who ran a spirited race against Klein this year.

Martinez’s exit was probably no surprise.  The early timing means a lot of speculation, research and writing for reporters who thought they had a respite coming after November 4.