Based on early returns, Fox News calls that Republican Marco Rubio has decisively defeated Independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek, becoming only the seventh Hispanic to get elected to the Senate. Rubio will be the second Hispanic senator currently serving in the Senate, joining Sen. Robert Menéndez (D) of New Jersey.
An Associated Press analysis of preliminary exit poll data showed that the Republican beat Democratic nominee Meek and Crist, who left the Republican Party earlier this year to run as an independent when polls showed him trailing in a GOP primary. With 34 percent of precincts reporting, Rubio had about 50 percent of the vote, Crist had 29 and Meek 19.
Rubio, a former speaker of the Florida House, was given little chance to defeat Crist when he announced his candidacy last year. Rubio will replace George LeMieux, who was appointed to the seat last year after Mel Martinez resigned.
Rubio built momentum through tea party rallies, driving around the state on a tight budget and often without staff to talk to any conservative group that would listen. His message was consistent: President Barack Obama's domestic spending and health care policies are a disaster and the nation will spiral downward if spending isn't controlled.
Party leaders in Tallahassee and Washington tried to force him out of the race so then-Republican Crist could walk to the nomination. But Rubio believed Crist wasn't a principled conservative and used the image of the governor hugging Obama at a rally to push for the $787 billion stimulus package to whittle away at Crist's support.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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