Labor’s division could be Rubio’s gain

Florida Senate candidates Kendrick Meek (D) and Charlie Crist (I) are battling for support from one of Democrats’ most powerful allies — the labor unions — but the big winner could be Republican candidate Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioStudents gather outside White House after walkout to protest gun violence Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes Senate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA MORE.

Union backing is important for any candidate, given labor’s ability to turn out voters and offer financial support.

For Crist, the outgoing governor who changed his candidacy from Republican to independent, the unions can provide him a base given that he’s without a party.

Meek, meanwhile, has been fighting a perception that Democrats don’t fully back his candidacy. But he’s been able to counter that with the support of two of the largest unions in the state, along with endorsements from several local unions.

And Rubio’s candidacy can benefit from any split among Democratic voters.

On Thursday, Florida’s largest union reaffirmed its support for Meek — just a day after several of its locals broke away and endorsed Crist.

Florida AFL-CIO President Mike Williams emphasized in a statement that "the vast majority" of Florida's union members are behind Meek's campaign.

Williams called the five local unions who endorsed Crist "some of the few local unions in Florida not affiliated with the Florida AFL-CIO" and noted they are "free to make their own decisions regarding endorsements in political races."

Fresh off a more than 20-point win in the state's Democratic Senate primary on Tuesday, Meek was met Wednesday with news that Crist won the backing of five Teamsters locals. The Crist campaign quickly hailed the endorsements as a sign of their candidate's burgeoning independent appeal.

"Working families across the state of Florida realize that we need an independent senator in Washington and not one who is beholden to the party bosses," said Crist campaign spokesman Danny Kanner.

The Meek camp and the state's AFL-CIO downplayed the effect of the endorsement.

"It is important to stress that the overwhelming majority of Florida's union members strongly support Kendrick and are committed to giving their time and energy to make sure he is the next senator from the great state of Florida," Williams said. "These five locals represent a very small minority of the labor movement here in Florida."

A spokesman for Meek's campaign similarly shrugged off Crist's newfound labor support.

"Charlie Crist is going to put out a release every time a Democrat crosses the street," said Meek spokesman Dave Hoffman. "The reality is that labor helped elect Kendrick earlier this week and they'll continue to be with us."

Meek won the backing of the Florida AFL-CIO in May at the union's state convention. He received it despite an in-person appeal to members from Crist, who addressed the union for the first time. "I want your endorsement," Crist said at the convention. "I am asking for it."

The Meek campaign also has the backing of the SEIU, which endorsed Meek in February of last year and led petition drives to get his name on the ballot. The union also funded some 200,000 direct-mail pieces that went to 50,000 households during Meek's primary campaign against self-funder Jeff Greene (D).

But Crist’s ability to pick off Democratic interests, even if it’s from a handful of local unions across the state, provides him an opportunity to further the narrative that he is eating away at Meek's base. The Crist camp also notes their candidate has been able to peel away more labor backing than the average non-Democrat should be able to in the state.

The Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, announced a split endorsement of Crist and Meek back in May. That was mostly attributable to Crist's veto of a bill that would have overhauled teacher pay in the state. The FEA was staunchly opposed to the measure and heavily lobbied state lawmakers to not back it.

The real question is whether Crist's labor endorsements will equal the financial firepower and ground game that labor has to offer, something strategists say Crist can't boast quite yet. What is clear is that Meek's campaign is worried about the prospect of not gaining among Democrats in the coming weeks.

After Tuesday's primary, they immediately launched an effort aimed at pushing Democrats back towards Meek. They've been highlighting old Crist press releases from his time running against Rubio in the GOP primary. In one, from this past March, Crist expressed support for state Attorney General Bill McCollum's lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of President Obama's healthcare plan.

For Rubio's camp, the more Meek gains among Democrats, the better, given Crist’s lead in the polls.

"He is by any standard a very credible candidate for the Democratic Party," Rubio strategist Todd Harris said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. "We think that the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters will rally behind him."

If that scenario does play out over the next few weeks, it stands to greatly benefit Rubio, who is relying on Meek to split the Democratic vote with Crist and leave an opening for the Republican.

The latest Quinnipiac poll in the race gives Crist a seven-point lead. In a three-way race with Rubio and Meek, the independent governor leads the way with 39 percent of the vote to Rubio's 32 percent. Meek is in third place with just 16 percent of the vote.