Much has been written about Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart (a pair of Cuban-American brothers from South Florida representing neighboring districts in Congress) withdrawing their support for Gov. Charlie Crist last week in his bid to become Florida's next US senator. Some speculate it was a move intended to favor fellow Cuban-American Marco Rubio, Crist's more conservative Republican primary opponent. However, most reporting on this story has been guided by conventional Washington thinking and a profound misunderstanding of South Florida politics. But, the most forgotten and unreported aspect of this story by reporters and columnists is how this decision is another sad reminder of the state of our politics.
What is clear is that the Diaz-Balarts rescinding their endorsement of Crist could not have come at a worse time for a campaign that is trying to spin itself out of the perception it no longer has the momentum in the Senate race. The last six months have been plagued with bad headlines, terrible economic news and sliding poll numbers for the once teflon governor. Recent polls indicate that Crist's one-time commanding lead over Marco Rubio has diminished substantially with the RealClearPolitics average placing Rubio within single-digit striking distance.
However, while being "un-endorsed" by two members of Congress is certainly not what Charlie Crist wanted to wake up to on Christmas, it'll have little or no impact when the Republican primaries are held in August of 2010. There is little doubt that Lincoln Diaz-Balart is currently the most respected and credible politician among Cuban exiles and that his brother Mario is not far behind in popularity. Nevertheless, their political endorsements did not carry much weight the last time they opposed a fellow Cuban American in a statewide Republican primary. In September of 2004, they sided with Bill McCollum over Mel Martinez in the GOP primary for the US Senate -- Martinez won over 90% of vote in majority Cuban American precincts and went on to win the Senate seat.
Moreover, the hard-line Cuba policy for which the Diaz-Balarts are famous for no longer has the backing of Cuban Americans; nearly three-fifths of them -- 59% -- now support allowing all Americans to travel freely to Cuba according to a poll conducted by my firm in October. And whether this turn of events will translate into more votes for Rubio remains to be seen. It is hard to imagine that Cuban American Republican primary voters, who tend to be older and ethnocentric, would have sided with Crist over one of their own.
But what is most significant about the Diaz-Balarts' decision is that it's emblematic of the pettiness of old-school politics. The Diaz-Balarts had no significant policy differences with Crist when they described him as recently as August as "exactly the leader we need." So, what changed? According to the Miami Herald, Crist decided to appoint Kathy Garner as the first woman and African American judge in the history of Gadsen County, rather than the candidate Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart supported.
When Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart was asked about their decision, he responded "we take our endorsements seriously...the governor knows why we withdrew and he left us with no alternative." He knows why we withdrew? He left us with no alternative? This is precisely the kind of back-room dealing the American people are tired of. Call me naïve or an idealist, but endorsements should be based on merits, issues and convictions, not political favors. Our country and community deserve better.