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Dems’ gambit in Florida

Once fiercely competitive, the Senate race in Florida is now Republican Marco Rubio’s to lose. With his two opponents, ex-Republican/now-Independent Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek, nuking each other the past several weeks, the mostly unscathed Rubio has been able to put some distance between his foes. 

The Talking Points Memo poll composite now has Rubio with 43.7 percent of the vote, compared to 28.5 percent for Crist and 21.6 for Meek. With Meek unable to gain much traction, the Democrats’ best chances for the seat would appear to be a Crist victory, as it now appears obvious that the left-trending Crist would caucus with the Democrats if given the opportunity. 

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So why aren’t Democrats clamoring for Meek to withdraw and give Crist a clear shot at Rubio? Why did Vice President Biden send a fundraising e-mail on Meek’s behalf last week, while President Obama cut a radio ad for the beleaguered Florida Democrat? 

The truth is that Democrats aren’t just happy for Meek to stay in the race, they are actively boosting what is pretty much a hopeless candidacy. Why? Because Meek’s presence on the ballot helps Democrats in the governor’s race.

With Democrats poised to lose myriad governors’ races, winning Florida would be a massive coup. Given the choice of the Florida governorship, or those of Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma (set to flip to the GOP), it’s no contest. 

But more substantively, holding the governorship would be a huge assist to Obama’s reelection bid in 2012, as keeping Florida blue will be a top White House priority. In addition, Florida’s governor has a veto over the state’s congressional redistricting in 2012. While a ballot initiative aims to strip that power from the partisan Legislature into more impartial hands, holding the governorship will be critical if that effort fails. 

And that’s where Meek comes in. Thirteen percent of Florida voters are — like Meek — African-American, and right now polls show him with 71 percent support in that community. That vote will be critical to Democrat Alex Sink’s chances in the virtually deadlocked gubernatorial race. In a campaign where every vote will prove critical, Democrats can’t count on Crist delivering new votes to other Democratic candidates. Abandoning Meek for Crist would almost surely depress African-American turnout and cost Democrats elsewhere on the ballot.

Indeed, that African-American support won’t just be important for Sink. Democrats have a bona fide pickup opportunity in Florida’s 25th congressional district, where 10 percent of voters are African-American. Democrat Joe Garcia, who narrowly lost the seat by six points against then-incumbent Mario Diaz-Balart in 2008, will need to maximize the Democratic base vote in a district that runs narrowly Republican.

Farther north, Rep. Alan Grayson is perhaps the top national GOP target this cycle, and represents another narrowly Republican district. While only 7 percent of his constituents are black, he’ll need every one of their votes to survive this competitive race. 

Hence, a bargain appears to have been made — surrender Democratic chances at picking up the Florida Senate seat in order to run and boost a candidate who will hopefully help other Democrats up and down the Florida ballot this year. If successful, the gambit will pay dividends for Democrats not only this year, but in 2012 and this entire coming decade (assuming redistricting reform doesn’t pass). 

If not successful, nothing much is lost: Democrats never seriously considered this Senate seat a pickup opportunity, while Crist waited too long to abandon the GOP and failed to bring any value to the Democratic ticket.

Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos and author of American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.