By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said yesterday that he will retire in 2010 after a single term in office, a decision that is sure to set off a competitive and costly race to replace him and that improves Democratic chances of picking up the seat in two years.
"The inescapable truth, for me, is that the call to public service is strong, but the call to home, family and lifelong friends is even stronger," Martinez said at a news conference yesterday in Orlando. "So today, with deep love for this country and with sincere gratitude to the people who placed their trust in me, I announce that I will not run for reelection to the United States Senate."
Martinez was widely regarded as one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents up for reelection in 2010, given his narrow win in 2004 and gains made by Democrats in Florida last month. His retirement complicates GOP efforts to regain seats the party lost in the last two elections. The GOP must defend 19 seats in 2010, compared with 16 for Democrats.
Those close to Martinez said the prospect of a difficult race did not factor in his decision to retire. "No question he faced a tough race," said Philip A. Musser, a senior adviser to Martinez's first Senate race. "But remember he's made a career of beating the odds in politics, and with a national finance network, a strong Cuban base in South Florida, his home base [in] central Florida . . . there's little doubt in my mind he would have been reelected."
National Democrats believe that state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is their strongest candidate to win the seat. Sink appeared to be uninterested in the race before Martinez's announcement, but those close to her said she is reconsidering a run. Other Democrats mentioned as possible candidates include Reps. Ron Klein, Kendrick B. Meek and Kathy Castor, as well as state Sen. Dan Gelber.
One high-profile Democrat who will probably not be a candidate is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is rapidly rising through the ranks in the House. "It is unlikely that she would seek the seat, given that she is very happy working for the people of South Florida in the House of Representatives," said Jonathan Beeton, communications director for Wasserman Schultz.
Among Republicans, the strongest possible candidate would be former governor Jeb Bush, though it seems unlikely he would run. State Attorney General Bill McCollum, who has lost two Senate bids this decade, is considering the contest, as are Reps. Vern Buchanan and Connie Mack, state Senate President Jeff Atwater, and former state House speaker Marco Rubio. Gov. Charlie Crist is not believed to be interested, preferring to run for reelection in 2010.
Martinez's political rise began a decade ago when he was elected Orange County chairman. President Bush named him to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2000, where he became the first Cuban American to hold a Cabinet post. After initially demurring, Martinez ran for the Senate seat being vacated by longtime Sen. Bob Graham (D).