Overlooked and underestimated on the campaign trail for nearly two years, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek on Tuesday easily beat back a profligate challenge from real estate mogul Jeff Greene to run away with the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
Meek, 43, is the first black Senate nominee from Florida and the only major black Senate candidate nationwide. If elected, he stands to become the Senate's lone African-American.
The Associated Press called Meek the winner just 15 minutes after the polls closed in Pensacola.
"There were those that counted us out, but you counted us in,'' a beaming Meek told hundreds of supporters at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood. He thanked everyone from God to President Barack Obama to "school bus drivers that I greeted this morning at 4:30 a.m. that know what it means to have to live paycheck to paycheck.''
But Meek has little time to savor defeating a brash billionaire who vowed to spend "whatever it takes.''
He wakes up today somewhat bruised, very broke, and polling in last place behind a national Republican superstar, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, and the sitting governor, Charlie Crist.
Crist, who left the Republican party four months ago to run as an independent, has about $8 million stashed away. Rubio has about $4.5 million.
Greene, 55, said Tuesday night that he would endorse Meek and contribute to his campaign.
"While this effort may have fallen short, we must work hard to ensure that the failed policies that will be pursued by the two Republicans in this race … cannot come back to power in Washington,'' Greene said in a concession speech in front of about 35 people at the West Palm Beach Marriott.
Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, who had a shoestring campaign with about $220,000, ran a distant fourth behind Meek, Greene and Glenn Burkett.
Greene spent about $25 million out of his own pocket, more than four times as much as Meek. He pummeled the Miami congressman with television spots and mailings casting him as a do-nothing, "corrupt'' career politician tied to a huge development scandal. Meek sought $4 million in federal budget earmarks for developer Dennis Stackhouse, who had paid his mother $90,000 as a consultant.
The development proposed for one of Miami's poorest neighborhoods was never built, and Stackhouse was charged with making off with about $1 million in public and private loans.
Meek repeatedly said that he didn't know about Stackhouse paying his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, and that he sought the federal money to bring jobs to struggling Liberty City.
For weeks, the attacks seemed to be working as Greene surged ahead of the longtime frontrunner.
But Meek countered with his own negative campaign in the homestretch, condemning Greene for making a fortune betting on mortgage foreclosures. Voters said they were also turned off by Greene's partying past and his carpetbagger status as a registered Democrat and Florida resident only since 2008.
"I have been negatively impressed by Jeff Greene,'' said 79-year-old Robert Priebe, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. "Now Meek may not be perfect … but Greene is trying to buy his way into the Democratic party.''
Meek hit Greene for making millions of dollars through credit default swaps, a complex financial investment that allowed Greene to bet against risky mortgages bundled into bonds.
"You don't put your dollars against Floridians and then turn around and use those same dollars and say 'Hey, I'm going to be for you,' " Meek said during the closing days of the campaign.
Greene pointedly campaigned on his record as an investor and real estate manager, portraying himself as a savvy businessman.
"I will create jobs and get results like they've never seen before," he promised at every campaign stop.
But his private life was as much a focus of the campaign as his business dealings — hanging out with boxer Mike Tyson, a Cuban stopover for his yacht Summerwind — variously described as part of a Jewish humanitarian trip, a layover for repairs and a party — and accusations that the yacht dropped anchor off Belize and damaged the nation's reef preserve.
Cuba also dogged Greene as a campaign issue, as he flipflopped over the Cuban embargo, initially saying he was solidly for it, and later saying he had thought about it and considered it a failed policy that needed to be reviewed with the prospect of opening travel and trade.
During a debate in early August, Greene criticized Meek for proposing earmarks and taking political contributions from special interests ranging from tobacco companies to BP.
This prompted Meek to reply: "You are a special interest," noting that Greene's vast investment portfolio includes plenty of oil interests.
The two leading Democrats agreed that Arizona's tough immigration law is a mistake, that the TARP bailout program was necessary and that offshore drilling should be banned near Florida.
"I voted for Kendrick Meek because that other guy is a fraud. I would never vote for somebody who made his money the way he did,'' said St. Petersburg doctor Robert Farese.
In November, however, Farese said he's voting for Crist.
The former Republican currently earns more Democratic support than Meek in the polls. But Meek's new status as his party's nominee, a billionaire-slayer and one of the most prominent black candidates nationwide, will put Crist-leaning Democrats, particularly officeholders and major donors, in an awkward position.
"I've tried to make it clear to them that they will diminish the Democratic party,'' said U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who was among Florida's first black members of Congress since Reconstruction when he was elected in 1992. "I can't begin to tell you how upset I am with certain Democrats. I just don't think it's fair.''
Before voting in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, Crist called himself an "independent voice'' and argued that Democrats should continue to support him in November. "I can win,'' he said.
In his speech accepting the Republican nomination in Miami, Rubio said, "I'm not running to be the opposition. I'm not running to be simply against people. I believe there is a better way to do things, and so do the majority of Floridians and Americans.''
Meek, visiting churches in Miami this past Sunday, said Greene made him a better candidate, though he described the campaign as a "painful process.''
"I am telling you the weight of $26 million is pretty heavy, and it gave us the strength we need to win against financial odds,'' he said. "I think my campaign needed a primary to present our case.''
The national Democratic party is not expected to invest heavily in Meek, considering his poor poll ratings and the high cost of competing in Florida.
"We saw in the closing weeks of this primary that as Floridians get to know Kendrick, they like him and vote for him. I believe we'll see a repeat performance come November,'' said U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement.
The White House signaled that it viewed Democrat Alex Sink's gubernatorial campaign as more of a priority when Obama came to a Miami Beach fundraiser for her last week.
Yet it was Meek — not Sink — who greeted Obama at the airport and accompanied him to a Miami Beach deli after the reception.
Meek is planning a victory lap around the state Wednesday, with stops in Miami, Hollywood, Boca Raton, Orlando and St. Petersburg. Crist and Rubio are also expected to make statewide rounds this week.
Times/Herald writers Aaron Sharockman and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.