Minutes after word spread today that Republican Sen. Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.) would resign from the Senate during the August recess, a rumor spread like a tidal wave from the Sunshine State: that moderate Gov. Charlie Crist, already a candidate in 2010 for the seat from which Martinez had earlier announced his retirement from, would name fellow GOPer and former Secretary of State Jim Smith to fill out the unexpired Senate term.
In Jim Smith, Florida and Senate Republicans have a former Democrat who was a key player in moving his state into the GOP column in the 1980’s. As his state’s “law and order” attorney general, Smith was considered the more conservative Democrat in the 1986 primary for governor won by liberal Steve Pacjic. After losing the run-off to Pacjic, Smith gave only pro forma support to the nominee and his stand clearly helped Republican Bob Martinez become Florida’s second GOP governor since Reconstruction that year. Martinez (no relation to Mel) then named Smith his chief of staff.
Elected secretary of state as a Republican in 1990, Smith tried four years later to win the governorship as a moderate alternative to conservative Jeb Bush. As one veteran Florida conservative recalled to me, “When he ran for governor in 1994, Smith was pro-choice on abortion but very pro-gun. As attorney general, he was very conservative on crime but on other issues, I would not be so sure how conservative he was.”
Smith lost that primary badly and has been relatively quiet on the political scene. Smith currently serves as a trustee of Florida State University and, along with Mel Martinez, has been mentioned as a possible FSU president. Both signaled last month that they were not interested in the post.
Should Smith be tapped for the Senate, it is likely he will be viewed with a bit of distrust by conservatives in much the same way that Martinez and Crist are. Although onetime Bush Cabinet Member Martinez had an overall conservative record, his support (while serving simultaneously as Republican National Chairman) for the comprehensive immigration reform package that died in the Senate two years ago earned him the derisive nickname “Amnesty Mel” from RNC members.
Crist, who faces a primary challenge from conservative stalwart and former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, has been under fire for his stand on issues ranging from climate control to the Obama stimulus package.
The Smith rumor at this point is just that: armor to protect Crist during the coming primary fight. But Florida sources I know and trust assure me: Mr. Smith’s going to Washington, for another year.