On two occasions over the past week, former president Bill Clinton attempted to persuade Democratic congressman Kendrick Meek to drop out of the Florida Senate race and endorse Republican-turned-Independent Florida governor Charlie Crist in the three-way contest. Clinton, who had campaigned for Meek twice in October, was acting with the knowledge – and presumably the blessing – of the Obama White House.
The stunning news, first reported by Politico’s Ben Smith, thrust the Florida Senate contest back into the national spotlight following several weeks of relatively little attention after a series of polls showed Republican Marco Rubio with a double-digit lead. The high-level efforts, involving a former president and several White House officials, suggest that the leaders of the Democratic Party were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that Rubio, a rising star in the conservative movement of Hispanic descent, is not elected to the Senate on November 2.
They seem to have failed.
The details are important. Smith reported that Clinton talked to Meek about dropping out of the race and that several Democratic officials believed that Meek had agreed to do so. Smith reported that a tentative endorsement event had been set up for October 26. In a rapid succession of developments Thursday evening, Meek denied that he had ever agreed to quit and said suggestions to the contrary were “inaccurate.” Clinton acknowledged talking to Meek about dropping out but denied coordinating with the White House. And Charlie Crist gave two interviews – one to Keith Olbermann and the other to Greta Van Susteren – and eagerly provided many details of the discussions to national television audiences.
At the end of the night, the trajectory of the Florida Senate race remained unchanged, but the story underscored the hardening perceptions of the candidates. Marco Rubio remains the clear frontrunner. Kendrick Meek looks like he cannot possibly win. And Charlie Crist, whose candidacy at this point amounts to little more than platitudes about loving the Sunshine State, cemented his position as one of the most shameless political opportunists in recent memory – quite a distinction when the other competitors are elected officials. The New York Times reported that Crist had agreed to caucus with Democrats if party higher-ups could convince Meek to drop out.
There were signs of increased tension between the Crist and Meek campaigns earlier this week. Several local Florida outlets reported that Crist and Meek met for ten minutes following their appearances at an AIPAC conference on Monday. The next day, Meek took some very pointed shots at Crist during a debate in Orlando moderated by NBC’s David Gregory. When Crist tried to explain his new position on gays in the military as a genuine change of heart, Meek sharpened his attack. “When I hear flip flops in the hallway I think it's the governor walking down the hall,” he said.
Later in the debate, the Meek campaign sent out an email mocking Crist for his need to bring a fan with him for many of his public appearances. At the beginning of the debate, Crist’s answers were somewhat difficult to make out because of a low-pitched whirring sound audible only when he spoke.
At 7:35pm, a little more than halfway through the debate, Meek aide Nathan Click sent out an email: “Charlie Crist’s Wind Tunnel.”
It read: “What is that whirling, fan-like sound we're hearing on our television when the governor is speaking? Could it be his fan? Below see a sample of photos taken during the debates between Florida's U.S. Senate candidates. Wherever the fan appears, Governor Crist is nearby.” The email included several photographs of Crist’s fan at debates over the past several weeks.
Crist’s obsession with this fan, which he often keeps below his chair during television appearances to ensure that he stays cool, is well known to the Florida political media. A local news station ran footage of Crist with the fan (after the same whirring sound muffled his audio), and the anchor noted that Crist “travels with the fan just to make sure he doesn’t look sweaty.” (The “fan” even has a Twitter account – @CcristFan.) But until the debate on Tuesday, and the Meek campaign’s email, the fan hadn’t been used as a political attack.
Will the Clinton/Crist/Meek story have any effect beyond Florida? It’s too early to say, but at a time when the White House and the Democratic establishment is doing everything it can to rally its base – and in particular energize black voters – any story about leading Democrats pressuring a credible black candidate to withdraw cannot be helpful. And with many unanswered questions about the White House’s role, press secretary Robert Gibbs will surely face intense questioning about the episode when he next faces reporters.
The original Politico story reported that the White House knew about Clinton’s conversations with Meek. In an interview with CNN, Clinton said that he had not coordinated with the White House and had told Meek not to discuss the possibility of dropping out with the White House. (The CNN report says that Clinton thought that it was “important” that Meek not talk to anyone at the White House.) It makes sense for Clinton to preserve deniability for the White House and his comments suggest that’s what he was doing. But at a minimum, the White House was aware of the maneuverings. A tweet from Steve Brusk, the coverage manager of CNN’s political unit, noted that a “senior Democratic official” told CNN’s White House correspondent Ed Henry “Clinton was operating with the knowledge of White House when he tried to convince Meek to drop out.”
Charlie Crist, in his interview with Greta Van Susteren, hinted at a much larger White House role. Crist claimed that he had spoken to “several people at the White House” about the possibility that Meek would drop out. But two hours after Crist’s appearance on Fox, his spokesman, Danny Kanner, put out a statement attempting to downplay the seriousness of the Crist-White House conversations. “The governor never asked anyone in the White House to help get Congressman Meek out of the race, and the White House never offered to help.”
So Crist was having conversations with people in a position to do the one thing that might salvage his failing candidacy and he didn’t ask them to do the one thing that might help him? That seems unlikely, particularly given what we know about Crist’s willingness to say or do anything to avoid the end of his political career. If they didn’t talk about getting Meek out of the race, what did they talk about? Crist told Van Susteren that his conversations with the White House took place after his talks with Clinton aide Doug Band. It’s possible that Band told Crist the deal was done – something Smith reported in his original Politico piece – and that Crist talked to the White House with the understanding that Meek was out, which would mean he didn’t have to ask the White House for help and the White House didn’t have to offer. Maybe.
So who took Crist’s calls at the White House? And what did they talk about?