Gizzi on Politics: July 13, 2009

What Happens When Crist Leaves?

The decision of Florida GOP Gov. Charlie Crist to step down and run for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez next year has given Democrats fresh hope of capturing the statehouse in Tallahassee for the first time in 12 years. Without the popular Crist, Sunshine State Democrats concluded, the Republicans will have a divisive primary and this will help the state’s Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the lone Florida Democrat in statewide office and the certain Democratic nominee for governor in 2010.  

But it isn’t working out that way. State Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum appears to be the runaway favorite for the Republican nomination and actually holds a small-but-impressive lead over Sink.  

According to a just-completed Mason-Dixon poll, McCollum — U.S. representative from 1980-2000, two-time U.S. Senate candidate, and onetime Clinton impeachment manager in the House — leads Sink by 41% to 35% statewide. McCollum also demolishes his lone opponent for the Republican nomination, State Sen. Paula Dockery, by 43% to 18% among Florida GOPers.  

How did he do it? Even admirers of the 65-yar-old McCollum worry about his perceived lack of personal magnetism. As one GOP county chairman and longtime McCollum supporter put it, “Bill is one of the brightest guys I have ever known, but when God passed out charisma, he was AWOL.”  

In addition, some on the right still hold a few grudges against McCollum, who had a generally conservative voting record (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89%), because of several non-conservative stands he took while in the House. The Floridian backed funding for the Legal Services Corp. and supported hate crimes legislation. Also, McCollum was one of the few Republican leaders in his state to support Rudy Giuliani for President in 2008.  

But his years of speaking throughout his state’s political vineyards and three statewide races have yielded high name recognition (87% among all registered voters, according to Mason Dixon).  

The lawman-candidate is also fortunate in that two other popular Republicans who might have been major competitors for the gubernatorial nod opted for other races. Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp has signaled his intention to run for McCollum’s attorney general office and is considered a cinch for nomination over his rival, law professor Jim Lewis. On the Democratic side, State Senators Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Dave Aronberg of Green Acres are locked in a tight nomination battle for the attorney general nomination, with State Sen. Rod Smith of Gainesville also likely to join the race.  

Another Republican once considered a strong candidate for governor, Rep. Adam Putnam (lifetime ACU rating: 95%), chose to run for state agriculture commissioner. Putnam is considered a strong favorite for nomination over State Sen. Carey Baker of Mount Dora.  
All told, Democrats could well make some gains in Florida next year. But for now, the idea that Tallahassee is theirs with Crist gone just doesn’t hold water.  

Knights of Right Move On Bishop

At a time when Republicans hold only three of New York’s 29 U.S. House seats (and may very well lose that of Army Secretary-designate John McHugh in a special election later this year), talk of actually unseating a Democratic House member from the Empire State may seem little more than a pipe dream. (Over all: only 15 out of 80 U.S. representatives from the Northeast are Republicans).  

Yet that’s precisely what GOPers in New York’s 1st District (Suffolk County) are now saying. After years of essentially giving a free ride to Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop (lifetime ACU rating: 2%), they now feel confident that the four-term House member is vulnerable.  
Much of this has to do with the ’08 results. In sweeping New York State, Barack Obama carried the 1st District by an unimpressive 51% to 48%. In the House race, little-known and under-funded Republican Lee Zeldin drew 42% of the vote against Bishop — the second strongest showing by any Republican challenger in New York in 2008.  

But what has most fueled Republican enthusiasm about taking out Bishop next year was a much-publicized performance by the congressman at a town hall meeting in Setauket last month. The event, as the local Times Beacon-Record reported June 23 “quickly turned loud and combative as hundreds of demonstrators from across Suffolk County confronted the Democrat on health care reform, federal bailout and environmental issues.”  

When the meeting was over, Bishop had to be escorted to his car by five county policemen, as the crowd shouted and waved signs and placards. Since his car was parked up the block, the paper said, “the congressman and his escort had to bear the shouts and insults for about half a mile.” Bishop did not stop to take questions or say anything more about the issues that prompted the jeers and insults from the crowd.

While there are many who disapprove of such protests and feel it is unbecoming of conservatives to behave in such a vocal way, there are also others who believe that a politician should confront critics rather than avoid them. Bloggers had a field day with the event.  

“Congressman Tim Bishop can’t take any time to address their concerns — instead he runs away,” was one reaction posted online following the reports of the Setauket scene. “Why don’t Democrat members of Congress want to hear from the voters?” asked another.  

Bishop’s backers were dismissive of the demonstrators. As Bishop staffer Jon Schneider told reporters, “Basically, it’s the tea party folks” — a reference to the ax-the-tax demonstrators who held tea parties at state capitols across the nation April 15 and again on July 4.  

While some of the angry crowd, estimated at 200, were with the local Conservative Society for Action, others said they were there because of anger over Bishop’s support for the environmentalist “cap and trade” legislation. As protester Susan Frohnoher of Riverhead told reporters, “Cap and trade will put us under.”  

At this point, Long Island businessman Randy Altschuler appears to be cobbling together a well-funded challenge to Bishop and is considered a strong favorite for both the Republican and Conservative Party lines next year. He obviously hopes the anger that Bishop witnessed first-hand translates into volunteers and votes for his opponent in 2010.

Party Time

State Republican party organizations continue to change chairmen, but conservatives usually remain in charge.

In Minnesota, businessman Tony Sutton was elected state Republican chairman over two opponents at the state party convention last month. Sutton, who owns a chain of Mexican restaurants, had been secretary-treasurer of the state party organization. He succeeds fellow conservative Ron Carey, whose last day at the party helm was the same day Democrat Al Franken was certified as the winner of the Senate race that had been disputed for the past seven months.  

A very familiar conservative face recently returned to the political wars in North Carolina after a decade in private business. Tom Fetzer, former mayor of Raleigh, (1993-99) was elected state Republican chairman. The 54-year-old Fetzer was a campaign aide to Sen. (1972-2002) Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) and also served as executive assistant to Sen. (1980-85) John East (R.-N.C.). Fetzer edged out another conservative, John Locke Foundation Vice President Chad Adams, at the state party convention.


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