MIAMI -- Florida, a geological afterthought, was the last portion of what are now the lower 48 states to emerge from the ocean, and it emerged halfheartedly: Its highest point is just 345 feet above sea level. But the fourth-most-populous state will loom over American politics next summer when Republicans select a Senate nominee. Their primary will test whether the party has become so risk-averse that it flinches from interesting choices.
The nominee almost certainly will be either Gov. Charlie Crist or Marco Rubio, former speaker of the Florida House (term limits, which he supports, retired him). Leading national Republicans rushed to endorse Crist. In tennis, such decisions are called unforced errors.
Republican Sen. Mel Martinez was elected in 2004. In 2007 the Republican National Committee, worried about declining GOP strength among Hispanics, made Martinez, who was born in Cuba, chairman of the party, a position for someone with a zest for politics. Last December, however, Martinez said he would not seek re-election to the Senate, and last month he said he would not even wait until 2010 to skedaddle. He resigned.
Not wanting to be a senator is understandable, but it is a nuisance to voters who thought Martinez did want to be, and to Senate Republicans, who number only 40, one short of the total needed to stop a Senate action. In 2010, the GOP and the Democrats both will be defending 19 seats. Because so many companies do business with state governments, governors are fundraising dynamos, so a Crist nomination would not burden the national party, which helps explain why party leaders like him. But that is myopic reasoning.
Crist appeared at a rally with Barack Obama promoting the $787 billion stimulus that got no votes from House Republicans and only three from Republican senators. He is a climate-change worrywart who wants to cap Florida's carbon emissions. He has chosen his former campaign manager to serve as a placeholder in the Senate during the crucial next 16 months.