Politics & Government

Marco Rubio defeats 2 rivals for Florida Senate seat

Florida Republican Marco Rubio celebrates with his family.
Florida Republican Marco Rubio celebrates with his family. Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT

MIAMI — Behold Republican Marco Rubio, political giant killer and one of the freshest-faced lieutenants of the conservative insurrection in Washington, who finished off Florida's sitting governor on Tuesday to become the state's next U.S. senator.

The 39-year-old son of Cuban-American immigrants was an indefatigable campaigner and a made-for-television candidate, perfectly packaged as the embodiment of the American dream with an unwavering message of fiscal discipline and love of country.

"No matter where I go, whatever title I may achieve, I will always be the son of exiles and will always be the heir of two generations of unfulfilled dreams," Rubio told an ebullient crowd of more than 1,000 people outside the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

Confetti was thrown, the streets were packed with shiny luxury cars and beat-up trucks, and a salsa band promised to play until dawn.

Rubio's victory over Gov. Charlie Crist capped one of the most dramatic political downfalls in the country. Rubio booted a one-time vice presidential shortlister out of his own party and into an untested, no-party bid that will end his 18-year political career, at least for now.

Rubio also dashed the ambitions of Miami Democrat Kendrick Meek, who gave up a safe seat in Congress for a chance to become Florida's first black senator.

Rubio skillfully channeled the energy of the conservative tea party movement without branding himself as a tea party candidate who could be pushed to the political margins.

Efforts by Meek and Crist to tar him as a right-wing extremist fell flat. So did persistent questions about his use of political funds for his personal expenses, most notably when he carried an American Express card from the state GOP.

Rubio will be Florida's second Cuban-American senator, after Mel Martinez, whose early retirement last year paved the way for the unusually turbulent race. As a Hispanic representing the nation's largest battleground state, Rubio immediately becomes a kingmaker in the 2012 presidential race, if not a potential contender.

The unusual dynamics of a three-way race allowed Rubio to coast to an easy victory as Crist and Meek wrestled over the Democratic vote.Crist personally tried to talk his third-place-polling rival into dropping out, calling Meek before dawn and even offering him a cross given to him by his sister.

Just five days before the election, Meek found himself scrambling to quash reports that his most prominent supporter, former President Bill Clinton, had urged him to bow out.

But according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research, Meek ended up capturing 49 percent of the Democratic vote, surpassing Crist's 42 percent. Rubio locked down 86 percent of the Republican vote; Crist got just 11 percent of Republicans.

Independents broke for Rubio at 51 percent, with Crist at 35 percent and Meek at 10 percent.

Crist's disappointment was obvious in brief remarks to about 150 people in his hometown of St. Petersburg. His eyes red, Crist thanked his family and said he believed Rubio would serve Florida well.

"This is the greatest state in the country and you are the greatest people in the world," he said. "You'll always have my heart. . . . This is a tough night, but there is a brighter future ahead."

Speaking to about 100 supporters in Key Biscayne, Meek commended Rubio for his hard-fought campaign and blamed his own loss on a tough political climate for Democratic officeholders.

"We won tonight," said Meek, who appeared headed for third place. "There are people throughout this state that went out and voted for the representation they wanted. We stood on our feet at all times."

In a year of mounting voter restlessness, Rubio's upbeat, serious tone and grandiose campaign themes helped him morph from an underdog scrapping to win straw polls at local GOP clubs to national superstar.

"I'm proud of Marco for his dogged determination," said former Gov. Jeb Bush, a mentor. "Marco Rubio makes me cry for joy, and we need great leaders who can lift the cloud above us."

Though the former Florida House speaker had risen from the West Miami City Commission to one of the most powerful posts in state government, he successfully cast himself as a political outsider disdainful of deal-making and compromise, even though his record suggested nuanced positions on cap-and-trade, immigration and government spending.

"He's definitely not wishy-washy," said Miami Beach doctor Cory DiGeronimo, 36, explaining his vote for Rubio. "I think we need someone who won't bend on being fiscally conservative, no negotiating or going in between."

Rubio is likely to be a key player in the upcoming debate over immigration reform. He opposes the legislation led by Martinez in 2006 that would have allowed undocumented workers to earn citizenship.

An early protege of Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who has built a fiefdom of like-minded conservatives, Rubio has vowed to push for extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans begun under President George W. Bush. He also favors raising the retirement age to shore up the Social Security fund.

"Rubio scares me," said 48-year-old Democrat Mary Irvine of Pompano Beach, who voted for Crist because she thought he had a better chance of defeating Rubio.

As of Oct. 13, Rubio had raised $18.25 million, compared to Crist with $13.38 million and Meek with $8.26 million. Rubio also benefited from millions of dollars spent on his behalf — much of it on anti-Crist attacks — from outside groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Club for Growth and a new political committee founded by Karl Rove.

(El Nuevo Herald staff writer Melissa Sanchez, Miami Herald staff writers Lesley Clark, Robert Samuels and Amy Sherman, Herald/Times reporter Aaron Sharockman and University of Miami student Elissa DeCampli contributed to this report.)

Related stories from McClatchy DC