Florida’s 3-Way Race for Key Senate Seat Could Hinge on Drilling

Rubio alone in his support for ending ban on offshore drilling in state's waters

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WASHINGTON—Floridians and political junkies nationwide have been so transfixed by a Marco Rubio-Charlie Crist U.S. Senate contest Nov. 2 that they’ve almost ignored the two Democrats squaring off for the same seat.

So, here’s a reminder. Either billionaire political newcomer Jeff Greene or four-term U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek will emerge on top after Tuesday’s Sunshine State Democratic primary.

The Democrat winner will become part of a three-way, rough-and-tumble contest with Rubio, former state House speaker who is still a Republican, and Gov. Crist, an ex-Republican who is now a newly minted independent.

Whatever unfolds will have major implications for the energy and climate conversation on Capitol Hill. And, having a trio of candidates on the November ballot means the victor can win with as little as 36 percent of the vote.

All are vying for the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. Last summer, Crist appointed Republican George LeMieux to fill Martinez’s unexpired term.

“With the Democrats, there doesn’t seem to be the drama,” Jennifer Rennicks told SolveClimate News in an interview. “But the competition between Rubio and Crist seems to present us with a delicious and scintillating story. It’s like reality television. People just can’t stop watching it, with all its new wrinkles and new iterations.”

The BP mess in the Gulf, categorized as the country’s worst environmental disaster, promises to make oil drilling and global warming a significant part of Florida’s post-primary campaign, said Rennicks, federal policy director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Though it seems to be the most-watched, Florida is not the only state with an Aug. 24 primary. Voters in Alaska, Arizona, and Vermont also will be headed to the polls for primaries that shouldn’t yield any surprises.

For instance, two-term incumbent Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has a commanding lead over her opponent, Joseph Miller. Miller, who has made earmarks the centerpiece of his campaign, has the backing of the “tea party” and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Also, Oklahoma has an Aug. 24 runoff scheduled, a follow-up to its July 27 primary.

Rubio, once a progressive state legislator on the energy and environment front, has been rewriting his script while morphing into what some observers call a darling of the “tea party” movement. He is the only one of the four candidates to favor new offshore drilling. Evidently, Rubio is also now skeptical of climate change science. In February, he told the Tampa Tribune that, “I don’t think there’s the scientific evidence to justify it,” according to an article in Politico.

Crist, Meek and Greene say they would all follow a tradition among Florida senators of opposing new offshore drilling in Eastern marine waters.

On the climate front, Senate leadership would certainly be courting the vote of Crist, Meek or Greene in an attempt to pass legislation to curb heat-trapping gases. With its current configuration of 57 Democrats and two independents, the Senate couldn’t recruit enough moderate Republicans to do so. The scuttlebutt in Washington is that Senate leaders are already talking with Crist about following the lead of independent senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to caucus with the Democrats.

As a Republican governor, Crist championed statewide action on global warming that is on hold in the Florida Legislature. And, both Meek and Greene have statements on their Web sites stating their support for green technology and legislation to regulate greenhouse gases.

“(The effects of climate change have) already begun to affect Florida’s fishing and agriculture industries, and Kendrick Meek believes we must do all we can to stem this tide,” reads a statement on Meek’s Web site.

“I support a common sense and fair system to combat climate change,” Greene writes on his Web site. “Any plan adopted by the Senate will need to rebate money raised to the taxpayers in the form of direct rebates or tax cuts.”

Neither Meek nor Greene had been endorsed by the Sierra Club or the League of Conservation Voters as of Friday, Aug. 20. Meek joined 218 other U.S. representatives in passing the American Clean Energy and Security Act in June 2009 on a 219-212 vote.

Though some observers consider the Democratic race a toss-up, the latest polls give the edge to Meek, who has evidently benefited from campaign support from President Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Name recognition also might be helping. His mother, Carrie Meek, served the same Miami-area district for 10 years before her son first won the seat in 2002.

Jerry Karnas, an energy consultant in Florida, pointed out that Meek has not distinguished himself on environmental issues during his time in Congress.

“In the primary, there’s really no daylight between the two Democratic candidates and Crist and Rubio don’t have competition,” Karnas, president of Sarasota-based Florida Clean Economy Strategies, said in an interview. “So for now it’s all quiet on the Western front.”

After Tuesday’s contest Karnas expects to see energy and environment issues leap to the forefront.

“During the BP oil spill, everybody around here was a nervous wreck,” he said. “When you have an economy driven by tourism, offshore drilling is the kind of issue that can turn people into single-issue voters.”

“The candidates’ positions on drilling are going to be critical,” Karnas concluded. “This is one of the few times when an environmental issue is at the top of the mind. It’s not going to top the economy but in Florida it’s woven into the economy.”