WASHINGTON -- If you need more proof of the Republican Party’s identity crisis, check out South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint's endorsement of former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.
DeMint officially threw his weight behind Rubio at a press conference outside a Senate office building Tuesday afternoon. The two men attracted about 10 reporters, there because, in running for the Florida Senate seat that will be vacated by Republican Mel Martinez, Rubio's bucking his party, challenging Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for the GOP nomination.
Rubio's a long shot to beat Crist. The governor's a popular man in Florida, and he has the weight of the GOP establishment behind him -- National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both back Crist. In fact, a June 10 poll conducted by Quinnipiac University’s Polling Institute has Crist holding a 54-23 percent advantage over Rubio. (The same poll, though, showed that 66 percent of Republicans don't know enough about Rubio to have an opinion about him -- that's both a negative and a positive for Rubio. On the one hand, it means he has a whole lot of work to do; on the other, it means that if he can increase his name recognition, he can make up ground.)
It makes sense that DeMint, one of the Senate's most conservative members, would endorse Rubio, an ideological compatriot, over Crist, a moderate Republican who upset many in the GOP when he broke from party ranks to support President Obama’s stimulus plan. DeMint, meanwhile, has called Obama “the world's best salesman of socialism."
But that doesn’t change the fact that the Republican Party is struggling to find an identity and prevent Democrats from attaining and preserving a filibuster proof majority. More specifically, it's having trouble finding a balance between moderation and candidates who can win in a general election (Crist, according to the Quinnipiac survey, has a 59 percent approval rating among Democrats in Florida), or sticking with the party's conservative principles, even if it means candidates doomed to tilt at windmills.
The fault lines are already evident in this race. While Cornyn and McConnell back Crist, DeMint is joining former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a surprisingly strong 2008 presidential candidate, in Rubio's corner. Meanwhile, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele has refused to take sides.
Asked at the press conference if there would be controversy surrounding his bucking of the party to endorse Rubio, DeMint said that both Cornyn and McConnell were fine with it. But he admitted that the GOP is still looking for an identity and a direction.
“The party needs to do what it needs to do,” DeMint said. [But] primaries are good, particularly now, as we search for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”
That identity may be difficult for Republicans to find if more highly contested primaries emerge. For his part, DeMint said today that he spoke with Crist, promising to keep the campaign positive and support Crist if he wins the primary. But from the very first anti-Crist spot his campaign produced, which attacks the governor for fiscal irresponsibility while tying him to Obama, Rubio's shown that this might not end with harmony for the Republican Party.