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Political storm is coming in 2010

We're in uncharted political territory, and it's exciting.

Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to skip a re-election bid and seek Florida's open U.S. Senate seat is unleashing a tidal wave of ambition that could dramatically alter the state's political course.

Five statewide offices will be open all at once in 2010 — Senate, governor and all three Cabinet posts. For political consultants, pollsters and opposition researchers, it's the ultimate economic stimulus package.

For the first time in Florida's history, a Senate race and simultaneous governor's race will feature no incumbents.

You have to go all the way back to 1916 for the last time the offices of governor and U.S. Senate were up for grabs in the same election, and it was a unique case. (I consulted Martin Dyckman, retired associate editor of the Times and an expert on Florida political history).

That year, Park Trammell was finishing his first and only term as governor when he won the state's first popular vote for U.S. Senate by defeating Nathan Bryan, a legislative appointee.

The 1970 elections were more similar to 2010.

Floridians elected a new senator, Lawton Chiles, and governor, Reubin Askew, in what marked a turning point in favor of younger, more dynamic leaders. The Senate seat was open because Spessard Holland had retired, but the governorship wasn't open: Askew beat Claude Kirk, the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, who was seeking re-election.

Kirk, in fact, was the first governor eligible to seek a second term. He was elected in 1966, and voters approved a new state Constitution in 1968 that allowed governors to serve two terms. That makes Crist the first governor to voluntarily pass up the chance for a second term.

With Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum running for governor, and Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson term-limited, all three Cabinet seats will change hands in 2010 — yet another first.

This potential upheaval in Florida politics will be accomplished without term limits. It began with Sen. Mel Martinez's decision not to seek a second term, and the dam broke when Crist decided to run for Martinez's seat.

Which brings us back to the governor, the real change agent here. His stated reason for running for the Senate is that he can help Floridians more in Washington than in Tallahassee.

That seems far-fetched on several levels.

Washington is hyper-partisan, which Crist isn't. His Republican Party runs things in Florida, and is out of power in D.C. Last but not least, senators tend to disappear into the woodwork when they get to Washington.

A reporter asked Crist a common-sense question this week: Isn't he seeking a Senate seat to extend his political career indefinitely without the worry of term limits that apply to governors?

"No, not really," Crist said. "I just think that at the national level we have an opportunity to fight for the people of Florida. That's where my heart is. That's what I want to do."

Nothing draws candidates like an open seat — usually. At this very early juncture, it appears that both parties are coalescing around a favorite: Democrats are with Sink, who announced Wednesday, and Republicans are with McCollum, who will announce Monday in Orlando.

"Change is coming," Crist said, in what may prove to be his grandest understatement of all.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Political storm is coming in 2010 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 8:44pm]
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