Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Buying Into Politics

Money or Party

Florida is regularly in the political news. Often it is for less than admirable qualities, including our inability to fill out a ballot properly or even for scheduling our primaries out of order. There is always a microscope on the Sunshine State, and now there is a good reason.

There is an interesting political experiment going on in Florida. The party establishment is being challenged by money. No, it is not a grassroots movement of voters. It’s hot in Florida; keeping grass alive in August is far too hard. The green that seems to matter in Florida is the greenback, and it’s creating a new kind of primary.

In the Democratic Senate Primary, there is a party candidate and a money candidate. Kendrick Meek is a party regular with endorsements from Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. He was well on his way to the nomination, having cleared the field of any credible Democrat, until the Forbes 400 wing of the Democratic Party announced their candidate: Jeff Greene. The billionaire and close friend of boxer Mike Tyson is self-financing his campaign and running without institutional party support. No worries, though. According to his rabbi, Greene is renowned for throwing his own parties.

Not to be outdone, the Republicans have a very similar race for the GOP nomination for Governor. Bill McCollum is a party regular. In state GOP tradition, McCollum waited his turn and was given an open field to claim the nomination. But wait. Rick Scott launched himself into the primary with a self-financed multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Already having won honors as one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential people and “CEO of the Year” by Financial World Magazine, the former hospital executive is looking to add Governor to his trophies.

Parties have had a monopoly on access to public office, and as a result, power within the party organization has been critical to success in both state or federal politics. This is not to say that outsiders have never competed, but the ability to contest with party regulars has always been limited. But two things have changed this dynamic. First, the media and Internet age present many opportunities to reach voters, making the access granted by party organization less relevant to people with their own resources.

Second, there is an increasing political mood favoring outsiders in the political contexts, creating an opportunity for non-traditional candidates to compete for votes that might not have been there in years past; if they can reach them. Money is reach and a class of idle millionaires and billionaires can reach for the sky.

It’s not clear that either Greene or Scott will win. After big launches, both candidates have lost ground recently due to politics and the power of parties to call home their voters. Even if both candidates fail, which is far from certain, their ability to enter races so late and compete so effectively has opened the party system is a new way, even if it is an opening limited to the wealthy.

Yet, perhaps any opening beyond the political class is a good thing, if only a small one.

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