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Is Kendrick Meek's Florida Primary Win Bad News for Democrats?

Democratic senate candidate Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., holds up a sign as his wife Leslie, left, claps, after his victory speech in Hollywood, Fla., Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010. AP

If you want to understand how covering politics can sometimes seem as if you fallen won the rabbit hole into Wonderland, consider the fallout from Florida's Democratic Senate primary.

Kendrick Meek, a member of the U.S. House with strong support form all corners of the Democratic establishment, soundly trounced Jeff Greene, a multi-millionaire challenge whose chief claim to fame was ownership of a lavish yacht on which eyebrow-raising events occurred.

So Democrats should be happy, right?

Not so fast; Meek's victory is being greeted by some in the party as very bad news, hurting their chances of taking a U.S. Senate seat away from the Republicans.

When the midterm cycle began, it was a sure bet that Republicans would hold onto to the Senate seat. Florida's Governor, Republican Charlie Crist, was expected to win without breaking a sweat. As it turned out, Crist fell victim to the rising "Tea Party" sentiment that drove Arlen Specter out of the GOP, and cost Utah Senator Bob Bennett his political future.

Interactive Map: CBS News Election 2010 Race Ratings

Angered by his embrace of President Obama --- the embrace, or hug, was literal on one occasion --- Florida Republicans moved in growing numbers to the primary candidacy of Marco Rubio, a dynamic former state House Speaker who advocated a more militant conservative politics. By the late Spring, it was clear that Rubio would swamp Crist in the GOP primary.

Crist then decided to leave the Republican fold, and run as an independent in the November election. In leaving the GOP, Crist also broke with his former party on issue ranging from abortion to public employee unions; moreover, he hinted that if elected, he might well caucus with the Democrats when it came to organizing the U.S. Senate. That would be a major, unexpected pickup for Democrats, whose control of the Senate is very much in doubt.

All summer, Crist began receiving tacit support from Democrats, especially when polls showed Meek running far behind Rubio and Crist. But how could Democrats openly desert the candidate of their party?

At left, watch strategists from both parties discusses the winners and losers from last night's primaries on Washington Unplugged.

That's where Jeff Greene provided hope, of a sort. With his lack of experience in politics, and with his checkered political past, the prospect of a Greene victory --- fueled by millions of dollars from Greene's vast wealth --- offered Democrats a way out. They could repudiate him without alienating any elements of the Democratic base.

Meek offers no such chance. He is not only a clearly qualified candidate, but if elected, he would be the only African-American in the U.S. Senate. Deserting Meek for Crist, then, could well cause long term headaches among the Democratic party's most loyal voters --- a headache the beleagued party can ill afford.

The lingering question is: what happens if, in October, Meek still trails far behind Crist and Rubio? Do Democrats walk away from their nominee and hope that independent Crist wins, and then joins Democrats? Do they double-down on their nominee?

This is no academic exercise. The answer may wind up determining who controls the United States Senate next year.

More election coverage:

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If Miller Wins, Will Alaskans Really Turn Backs on Federal Government Largess?
Rick Scott Win: Bad News for Republicans?
Alaska Election Results Provide a Boost to Palin
Murkowski Trails in Tight Alaska Primary
Meek Wins Florida Democratic Senate Primary
McCain Wins GOP Nomination for Senate in Ariz.
Arizona Primary Results: Ben Quayle Wins

Jeff Greenfield is CBS News' senior political correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here

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