Senate races

Meek wins big, faces new battle

Rep. Kendrick Meek’s next battle in his quest for Florida’s Senate seat is keeping big-name Democrats in his camp and away from Gov. Charlie Crist’s independent bid.

Meek (D-Fla.) won the Democratic nomination by more than 20 points Tuesday, easily holding off self-funded billionaire Jeff Greene.

{mosads}But Crist’s campaign has been courting Democratic donors in the state with some success since the governor left the Republican Party and embarked on an independent Senate campaign. 

And Meek will need that money in November.

On Monday, one of President Obama’s top consultants hosted a fundraiser for Crist. Democrat Freddy Balsera, who led the president’s outreach to Hispanic voters during the 2008 presidential campaign, is now openly aiding Crist’s Senate bid despite White House backing for Meek.

Crist is leaning on Jeff Lieser to lead his outreach to Democratic donors. Lieser served as finance director for Alex Sink’s successful 2006 campaign for state chief financial officer. Sink is now the party’s Democratic nominee for governor.

Democratic pollster Mark Penn and his wife, Nancy Jacobson, also hosted a fundraiser for Crist at their home in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Jacobson, a major Democratic fundraiser who headed Sen. Evan Bayh’s (D-Ind.) political action committee, has contacted several leading Meek donors to lobby on behalf of Crist.

Still, most of the major players among the Democratic fundraising community are remaining with Meek, at least for now.

“I don’t think [Crist] is going to get much organized support at all among Democrats,” insists Michael Adler, a Florida developer and one of the state’s largest Democratic donors.

Several major donors, including Adler, told The Hill they have been contacted by Jacobson urging support for Crist, and rejected her effort.

“I told her I was disappointed that she was doing it,” said Adler. “I think everybody was surprised that she was doing it, too.”

“I don’t doubt that there will be a certain profile of Democrat Crist will appeal to, but the biggest donors in this state — the ones who have been truly involved in the political process here for Democrats — will stay with Kendrick,” Adler said.

Prominent Florida attorney and donor Mitchell Berger echoed Adler, noting that A-list Democratic donors in the state remain solidly behind Meek.

Berger said that unlike 1994, when several big-time Democratic donors bucked the White House and refused to support Hugh Rodham’s bid for Senate, he doesn’t expect top donors to flip to Crist this time around.

“I just don’t see it happening this time,” said Berger, who described the major Democratic donor community as being “in lockstep” with Meek.

“That doesn’t mean Crist isn’t attracting other folks,” Berger said. “Conservative Democrats who are more active in Tallahassee, for example. But people who help fund the national Democratic ticket in Florida are solidly behind Kendrick Meek.”

But if the general election polling remains relatively static over the next two weeks, some Florida donors said that could start to change. Meek has been polling in third place — if that continues, it could create an opening for the Crist campaign to lobby some of Meek’s big-name backers.

”At the end of the day, you’d like to see [Meek] win, but you simply can’t afford to have Marco Rubio in the Senate,” said one major Democratic donor.

Florida attorney and Meek backer Alexander Heckler said the Democratic donor community will stay with Meek, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if the business community starts hedging their bets closer to Election Day.

Asked what happens if Meek is unable to get out of the teens in general election polling a few weeks from now, Heckler said, “Then very quietly and aggressively [Crist] will start to go after Meek’s biggest donors.”

In the wake of Tuesday’s primary, another pesky issue could re-emerge for the Meek campaign — just how involved the White House will be in lobbying top Democrats to steer clear of Crist if the governor looks like he could win in November.

“Even if they’re not behind Crist, there are enough [major donors] sitting this one out that I can see why Meek would be worried,” said another top Democratic donor in the state, who is focusing on the governor’s race and not aiding either Crist or Meek for Senate.

“I think the fact that someone like Freddy Balsera is putting his name on an invitation is the latest indication that Crist is having some success,” the donor said.

Meek supporters argue that most of the Democratic donors Crist has been able to pick off aren’t exactly Crist converts.

Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, for example, has been a longtime Crist backer. Morgan held a fundraiser for Crist last year when he was still running for Senate as a Republican and, in April of this year, publicly urged Crist to abandon the GOP primary and run for Senate as an independent.

Top Democrats say Crist’s strong support among the trial-lawyer community isn’t anything new.

“This is what Crist has been doing since April,” said Meek spokesman Adam Sharon. “He’s trying to create the false impression that he’s made inroads with Democrats and Democratic donors.”

And Meek has one of the biggest party fundraisers on his side: former President Clinton. Clinton held five fundraisers for Meek leading up to the primary and is likely to hold more in the general election race.

The major test of just how much support Crist has picked up among Democratic donors will come once the next set of fundraising reports are filed with the Federal Election Commission. The quarter closes at the end of September and reports are due by Oct. 15.

During the second quarter of the year, Crist raised $1.8 million and, according to an analysis by The Associated Press, donors who had given to Obama’s campaign in 2008 made up close to 10 percent of the governor’s second-quarter donors. 

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