Republican Marco Rubio ran a strong campaign to win a decisive victory Tuesday in the U.S. Senate race over Democrat Kendrick Meek and Gov. Charlie Crist, who ran as an independent. The charismatic former state House speaker from Miami won solid backing from the tea party movement and the Republican establishment, and he instantly becomes a national figure. He has an opportunity to make a significant contribution in shaping the national agenda.
Rubio said many of the right things in his victory speech. He said it would be a "grave mistake'' to read his win as an unqualified affirmation of the Republican Party and said it gives the GOP "a second chance." He reaffirmed his campaign pledge to tackle the nation's biggest issues, including the economy and the federal deficit.
"Our nation is headed in the wrong direction,'' he said, "and both parties are to blame.''
But roughly half of the voters favored either Crist or Meek, suggesting the electorate is not as conservative or as angry with the Obama administration as the result might suggest. Now Rubio's challenge will be to be more pragmatic and collaborative. The state's two senators, regardless of party affiliation, have long collaborated on issues such as restoration of the Everglades and the selection of federal judges, and Rubio should reach out to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
Rubio was well liked by both Democrats and Republicans in Tallahassee, and he had the courage during the campaign to suggest real Social Security reforms, such as raising the age for eligibility for younger workers. Florida will expect more from its newest senator than being an obstructionist who refuses to work toward consensus.
The future is cloudier for Crist, who began his political career as a state senator from St. Petersburg before being elected education commissioner, attorney general and governor. He underestimated the difficulty of running as an independent candidate, and his shifting positions too often were viewed as pandering. While Crist remains personally popular, he won't be welcomed back into the Republican Party. His priority now is to spend his last two months as governor ensuring a smooth transition to his successor.
It was a good day for other statewide Republican candidates as well. While the governor's race remained too close to call Tuesday night, Republicans easily swept the state Cabinet races. Jeff Atwater, the outgoing state Senate president, will bring valuable experience as a legislator and a banker to his new position as chief financial officer. The independence he demonstrated by refusing to embrace offshore oil drilling despite considerable pressure from his Republican colleagues will be helpful on the Cabinet.
Similarly, U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow will bring considerable experience to Tallahassee as the commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. Putnam's background in agriculture and his ideas about alternative energy and land preservation are forward-looking, and his legislative experience in Tallahassee and Washington will be an immediate asset.
Former Hillsborough assistant state attorney Pam Bondi breezed to victory in the attorney general's race in her first campaign for public office. She should take on the ethical issues in Tallahassee and focus on cracking down on Medicaid fraud and mortgage fraud instead of the national issues she highlighted in her campaign.