On the trail with Kendrick Meek

ON THE TRAIL WITH KENDRICK MEEK…. On paper, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), a leading U.S. Senate candidate in Florida, should be in reasonably good electoral shape. He’s a fairly popular congressman and law-enforcement officer who enjoys the backing of Democratic giants like former President Bill Clinton. What’s more, the Democratic candidate will be in a three-way contest in November, with Republican Marco Rubio and used-to-be-Republican Charlie Crist.

It’s fairly easy to imagine the winning scenario — Rubio and Crist split the GOP vote, and Meek, running in a state Barack Obama won by about three points in 2008, comes out on top with support from Florida Dems.

At least, that’s the scenario the Meek campaign and the DSCC are hoping for. Thus far, the road to the Senate has run into a few roadblocks. While Meek was effectively running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, he’s now up against billionaire Jeff Greene, who’s been going after the congressman quite aggressively. In the general match-ups, recent polls show Meek struggling badly.

I had a chance to chat with Meek a few days ago. We talked at some length about the BP oil spill threatening Florida — Meek is, not surprisingly, deeply concerned about the environmental and economic impact of the disaster — but transitioned to the state of the Senate race.

On the oil spill as it relates to coastal drilling:

“As of recently, there have been some figures in Florida who have promoted off-shore drilling. Even in the state legislature, there was a bill filed by the Republican incoming Speaker to allow off-shore drilling three miles off the coast of Florida. Looking at the present situation, I know Floridians will definitely be against such an idea. It’s devastating for those of us here in Florida to see not only tar balls, but big oil splotches on our white, sandy beaches. […]

“Individuals were sent to Congress to protect their constituents, not stand up on behalf of multi-national companies like BP. I think it’s important that voters pay attention to who’s … standing up for the communities that are affected by the fact that BP did not do what it was supposed to do to make sure this incident never happened in the first place, and that people are not left behind in the future, as it relates to holding the bag on damages to small businesses, individuals, and the environment.”

On the importance of drilling in the campaign:

“[Offshore drilling] will be a major turning point in the campaign. I’m the only candidate in this race that has a 100% League of Conservation Voters record. I am the only candidate in this race that has been consistently against offshore oil drilling. I am the only candidate in this race who can speak with a straight face on this issue.”

On the state of the primary:

“I think things are going well…. The turnout will not be what we want it to be, but I can tell you for those who do turn out, we’ll be victorious. The Democratic primary will be about elevating a Democrat to the general election. Mr. Green does not have a Democratic record. I am the only candidate, of the four major candidates in this race for the United States Senate that has not run as a Republican in the past. I think that will be helpful in the primary.”

On his low name-recognition statewide:

“There’s so much attention on Rubio-Crist through quarters three and four of last year, and now quarter one and two of this year. Quarter three is going introduce me through earned media to the state of Florida… People will hear from me and see the support that other groups bring to the table.”

On whether he’d support institutional reforms in the Senate:

“I will work with those members who understand that the filibuster rule is not only outdated, but is being abused. When the United States Senate is not able to do its work, America suffers. The filibuster was originally in place to make sure the minority party is not left out of the decision-making process — a tool to force bipartisanship. It’s done just the opposite.”

As a political observer, I found some of Meek’s answers stronger than others. When I brought up the “enthusiasm gap” between the parties’ bases, the congressman talked only about his own institutional endorsements, not the larger trend. When I asked what the Democratic congressional majority might consider in the coming months to improve its odds of staying in power, he wouldn’t go into details, adding, “The Congress has done a lot.”

In general, though, Meek seemed like a confident, capable Senate candidate. I got the impression he’s unfazed by his underwhelming poll numbers, and expects be the tortoise that eventually passes the better-known hares.

It’s obviously easier said than done. As Charlie Crist, running as an independent and moving to the left, stays on top of the polls, there’s “evidence that Democratic donors are starting to line up behind” the governor, not Meek. There seems to be a practical concern among institutional Dems in Florida — if Meek continues to struggle in the multi-candidate race, Crist is seen as the electable, preferable alternative to the right-wing Rubio.

Meek has time to improve his numbers, and keep institutional Democrats in his corner, though the primary certainly complicates matters. Talking to him, the congressman sounded convinced he’s right where he needs to be. Whether that confidence is warranted will be clear soon enough.