A seismic shift for Charlie Crist

It was only 12 months ago that Gov. Charlie Crist was weighing a U.S. Senate campaign — and was seen as a shoo-in. Now facing a 20-point deficit in the polls to Marco Rubio, Crist has until Friday to decide whether to stay in the race as a Republican, run as an independent or not run at all. With more than six months to go until the general election, it's a good time to stand back from the fray for a minute, and ask some people who are paid to know what's going on, well, what's going on? So we've put some questions to Times political editor Adam Smith, columnist Howard Troxler, deputy editor of editorials Joni James and Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet.

Jim Verhulst, Perspective editor

Will Gov. Charlie Crist run as an independent for the U.S. Senate?

Steve Bousquet: Yes. Not as an independent but NPA (no party affiliation). It's his only chance.

Howard Troxler: I'm always wrong, so he's going to do the opposite of whatever I say. But here's a guy who's spent his entire career talking about the party of Lincoln and Reagan. It's going to take an extraordinary leap for him to abandon it. In the short term, that might be a better chance for him to win; in the long term, if he loses, it's the end of his career. It's an extraordinary gamble.

Adam Smith: Most every sign points to an NPA run.

Joni James: The Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) has made clear he's not welcome there anymore. If he runs, it looks like he'll bet on the long ball.

If he does, handicap the race between Crist, Marco Rubio and Kendrick Meek.

Steve Bousquet: It would be the longest, liveliest and most interesting Senate race in a long, long time. Crist can narrowly win it with a strong get-out-the-vote effort and if he can siphon a lot of votes away from both parties' candidates — especially Kendrick Meek.

Howard Troxler: Crist as an independent has to build a winning coalition of crossover Republicans (there probably won't be that many, since he's already getting killed in the Republican polls), independent swing voters, and — this is the key — crossover Democrats. He has to get enough Democrats to vote for him instead of voting for their own party, which is easier said than done.

Adam Smith: Money will be a huge hurdle for Crist. He probably has about $5 million or $6 million on hand now, and it's hard to see how he raises a lot more as an independent. Meek and Rubio will have $20 million plus. Nor will Crist have access to voter lists, absentee ballot info, etc. So the only clear winner is us, getting to cover an amazing story.

Joni James: Another big hurdle: Finding the right campaign manager capable of overcoming those significant deficits. Aside from his gubernatorial run, when George LeMieux was at the helm, Crist never has had particularly sophisticated campaigns. He's always run on his personal charisma with loyal aides by his side and the party backstopping deficits. He'll need someone with far more savvy for an independent run.

Just a mere year ago, the state was abuzz, wondering if Crist would forgo a shot at a second gubernatorial term and make a U.S. Senate run. In an analysis of the different scenarios that Crist's decision would set up, we declared on the cover of this very Perspective section that "if anybody's unbeatable, it's Crist." What happened?

Steve Bousquet: Everything went wrong, as Crist misread the mood of the public over and over. He was too enthusiastic about accepting Obama stimulus money. He didn't do enough to create jobs and stimulate the economy. He remained loyal to Jim Greer for far too long. His obsession with raising money as a Senate candidate, and his marriage, distracted him from his duties.

Howard Troxler: The stars lined up perfectly for Marco Rubio with the election of Barack Obama as president and a natural counter-reaction to Obama's policies, especially on health care. Meanwhile, Crist (and the Republican Legislature) had to deal with a catastrophic economy and took the stimulus money; Rubio had the luxury of not having to govern and could blame Crist (but not the Legislature) for taking it, while associating him with all things Obama.

Adam Smith: "Things change," Crist said a few days ago. And boy was he right. There are so many mistakes and misjudgments you can point to, but the single biggest was Crist's decision to run for Senate. His popularity probably would have tumbled inevitably, but few credible challengers would have stepped up early on if he ran for re-election.

Joni James: Even after becoming governor, Crist never won over a good faction of the RPOF — the Jeb Bush acolytes who always viewed Crist as a lightweight centrist. They stewed under Greer's leadership, and his Obama embrace sealed their disdain. Then he alienated the moderates when he signed Senate Bill 360 removing key growth management measures. Then he angered them all; after visibly courting several sitting congressmen, he arrogantly picked LeMieux to take Mel Martinez's place in the U.S. Senate.

How does a state with 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans have such a heavily Republican Legislature?

Steve Bousquet: It's from the very careful and skillful gerrymandering of legislative districts and the GOP's historic superiority at raising money, targeting likely voters and executing more effective campaigns.

Howard Troxler: Our Republican friends would tell you it's because voters prefer Republican ideology, and Democrats would blame the whole shebang on gerrymandering. In truth there are several reasons — the Republican rise actually began under districts drawn by Democrats, remember. Republicans did a great job of recruitment, organization, absentee voting and focused message. Once they won the majority, of course, they could draw districts better to their liking, and as the majority, pro-business party, the Republicans enjoy a great advantage in raising money that helps them hold power.

Joni James: Howard's point is especially true in the inverse. Florida Democrats have failed in recent years to develop a focused message or draft a strong slate of candidates to sell it. Obama won Florida, but there were no coattails in the Legislature whatsoever.

Adam Smith: Don't forget that a lot of registered Democrats are still Panhandle Dixiecrats who mostly vote Republican.

How did Crist and the Legislature, which again, are mostly Republicans, come to be at such odds?

Howard Troxler: Some of it is just a natural tension. It's funny that Jeb Bush is now so canonized when, as governor, he and the Legislature grated on each other plenty. Bush used the line-item veto to a record extent and sometimes vetoed bills that the Legislature thought he had agreed to sign. Similar friction existed earlier under Lawton Chiles. Of course, now with Crist, there's an overlay of the ideological struggle — the pro-business, education-critic leaders of the Legislature are able to claim that whenever Crist vetoes something, they were the ones being conservative and he was selling out.

Joni James: The tension with Crist is different than under Bush, who relentlessly used his bully pulpit to drive legislative agenda. Crist has been far more passive with the Legislature. Now lawmakers resent that he's finally engaging and only on the back end.

Adam Smith: For a lot of the same reasons that Marco Rubio is trouncing Crist among likely Republican voters. Crist started snubbing the activist conservative Republican base almost the moment he took office — rescinding Jeb Bush appointments, courting Democrats, restoring felon rights, etc.

Did the fracas over Senate Bill 6 — which would have substantially changed the teaching profession in Florida — and Crist's veto of it, fundamentally change the political equation in Florida?

Steve Bousquet: Too soon to tell. It's a distinct possibility, but history suggests that over time, the voters' memories fade. It would be highly unusual for a specific piece of legislation to move many people in a statewide election.

Howard Troxler: I don't know if it changed the equation as much as ratified it. If Crist had signed the bill, were all the Rubio supporters going to say, "Holy cow, he's one of us after all, now we're going to vote for him?"

Adam Smith: Exactly. Jeb Bush was going to endorse Rubio, regardless of SB 6. Politically, Crist gained a lot more in the veto than he lost.

Not more than a few weeks ago, Crist's chances as an independent to win the Senate race were slim to none. A more recent poll shows him actually winning the general election (barely). How did those numbers shift so much, so fast? And do they reflect political realities such as fund-raising and the importance of fealty to party?

Steve Bousquet: I'm skeptical about those poll numbers; so much can change in this state so quickly, as Crist's own fortunes have shown us.

Howard Troxler: Crist is probably getting a short-term bump from the veto and all the speculation about what he's going to do. I don't trust the polls either — remember, the absolute key to his winning as an independent is to convince enough Democrats not to vote Democratic. How much of the euphoria over the veto in April will translate into votes in the fall?

Joni James: There is no guarantee that teachers will back Crist over Meek, who was the architect of the 2002 class-size amendment. Plus, the Florida Education Association's support of Bill McBride's 2002 challenge to Jeb Bush ultimately meant very little.

How did Marco Rubio gain such a following? What was the first inkling that his story had gone national?

Steve Bousquet: Rubio is sort of a Sarah Palin 2.0 -— the telegenic, quotable and highly articulate face of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. He has a compelling personal biography, and he has received a tremendous amount of positive national news coverage.

Adam Smith: From the start, the Rubio campaign did an amazingly good job courting the national conservative media like National Review, Weekly Standard, etc. There was always a lot of buzz about Rubio — culminating in a National Review cover last August. Once the poll numbers started to tighten, the mainstream national media jumped on it.

Joni James: Rubio's timing couldn't be better. He emerged just as Obama's honeymoon was ending and Crist was stumbling with SB 360 and LeMieux's appointment. His message was a ready antidote for disillusioned Republicans.

Given how quickly the facts on the ground have shifted — remember how much has changed in the past year and that the general election is still half a year away — give us a sense of what to watch for next to anticipate the next seismic change.

Steve Bousquet: Three factors to watch: Will Republicans (mainly donors and elected officials) condemn Crist if he runs as an unaffiliated candidate? How can Crist raise money without the backing of a party apparatus? What interest groups will endorse or co-endorse Crist (teachers' union, environmental groups, law enforcement, etc.).

Howard Troxler: If Crist runs as an independent he's really going to have to invent a new kind of politics and he's going to have to appeal to the "reasonable middle" and to Democrats aggressively. If he runs as Republican-Lite, he loses. He can't passively count on support from the teacher veto or anything else. If he stays in the party he'll hit Rubio as hard as he can and hope for a miracle — then he needs to turn around and support Rubio if he loses, play the loyal Republican solider and look for another Senate or House run down the road. He's only 53.

Adam Smith: It's fair to assume, an independent run by Crist would cause Rubio's fundraising to explode. I'd keep an eye on Democrats and whether they stick behind Meek or peel off to Crist.

Joni James: Watch to see whom Crist hires as his campaign manager — and if that person is up to the extraordinary challenge. Crist won't be able to wing it this time.

How will the tea party movement play out in Florida over the next several months?

Howard Troxler: The tea party rallies to me feel a lot like the Ross Perot rallies of 1992 and 1996 — people who are simply fed up with government and the same old politics. They've already helped boost Rubio to front-runner status. They might help the Republicans knock off some swing seats and create some midterm losses for the Democrats. But I keep hearing talk about it being a political revolution, and I doubt it. A revolution is still more likely to come from the middle than the right or the left, which is the main argument in favor of Crist running as an independent.

Adam Smith: I agree the tea party phenomenon is overhyped. Rubio's support is much broader than angry protesters.

Joni James: Look what has happened locally in the 10th district congressional race. Eric Forcade of Palm Harbor, the tea party candidate running in the Republican primary, has dropped out of the race and thrown his support to Rep. Bill Young, the longest-serving Republican and veteran earmarker of Congress. So much for a revolution.

The U.S. Senate already has two independents — Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders — but how would Crist fit into that body if he ran as one and won?

Steve Bousquet: Crist would be a (pick your term) free agent, tie-breaker, political opportunist. Most people expect he would caucus with Republicans, because Crist has no intention of renouncing his party affiliation.

Howard Troxler: As a career Republican, Crist would likely vote with his party most of the time, reserving the right to break away on select issues.

Adam Smith: Crist is no Joe Lieberman. The Connecticut Democrat you could at least argue stuck by principles when he ran as an independent. The rationale for Crist running as an independent is mainly that it's the only way he might win.

Joni James: He'd caucus with Republicans but be more open to bipartisan alliances — as he has been as governor — than most.

Does it say more about the Republican Party of Florida or of Crist that a formerly very popular governor stands to have little chance of winning his own party's primary?

Steve Bousquet: It says more about Crist, and how about he never has been a good fit in a party primary. The governor's primary in 2006, when he trounced Tom Gallagher, now looks like a true aberration.

Howard Troxler: Probably it says more about Crist, who was always a moderate claiming to be a conservative. He was able to get away with it as long as he was running against a Democrat; now the conservatives within his own party are calling him out on it.

Joni James: It underscores that RPOF is still the party of Jeb Bush. Crist was never embraced as the party's leader and certainly didn't help himself by picking Greer and sticking by him after numerous complaints. Bush still casts a large shadow that Crist was never able to dissipate.

Is there any chance of a fracturing of the Republican Party or would a Crist independent run be a one-off event?

Steve Bousquet: If Crist were to run as an NPA candidate and win convincingly, it could have a seriously bad effect on the Republican Party's fundraising ability.

Howard Troxler: I doubt we're talking about a permanent Republican fracture even if Crist runs as an independent and somehow wins. There seems to me to be a pretty good conservative consensus within the Republican Party, as opposed to an all-out war between moderate and conservative factions.

Adam Smith: Don't think it would have much effect on the Republican Party, but if Crist ran as an independent and won he would be among the most important figures on the national stage.

Joni James: It's a one-off, particularly in Florida. Even in the midst of scandal and growing disillusion with Crist, RPOF raised more than $7.8 million last quarter, dwarfing the Democrats' take. And it still controls more than 60 percent of the Legislature. What's the incentive to split from such a record?

We haven't talked much about Democrats. Size up how Democratic voters would approach voting for Kendrick Meek versus Charlie Crist in a general election.

Steve Bousquet: Many Democrats would be open to voting for Crist, especially if, as expected, he shares a "dual endorsement" of the teachers union for vetoing SB 6. But the constituency he gains from the veto is not big enough to win a statewide election. They are teachers, parents and educators who are in some cases Democrats or independents who now have a more favorable opinion of Crist than they did before.

Howard Troxler: So far Meek has been overshadowed by the Crist-Rubio drama but he seems to be running a reasonably competent campaign, which does not bode well for Crist as an independent. Crist is, after all, still a Republican, and for Democrats to flock to him en masse they have to be convinced that (1) Meek is a lost cause and (2) anybody is better than Rubio. A credible Meek campaign gives Democrats a reason to stay in the fold.

Adam Smith: Nobody's noticing except Howard, but Meek is actually running a very strong campaign and by some estimates could be the front-runner in a three-way race. Even though he's mostly unknown, polls show him trailing only slightly behind Rubio in a two-man race. Don't count him out.

Joni James: There is one dynamic in a three-way race that no one can predict in post-Obama Florida. The ballot would have a Hispanic (Cuban-American) Republican, a black Democrat and a white independent. How much a candidate's race matters to voters and if it will alter the outcome of the election is anyone's guess. But it will matter to some voters in the privacy of the voting booth.

Is what is going on in Florida a sign of national change, is it limited just to Florida, or is even more limited — a unique circumstance involving just a few personalities — Crist and Rubio?

Steve Bousquet: It's a case that's unique to Florida, but for the fact that many people seem disillusioned by both political parties and are hungry for an alternative. The question is whether Crist is that person.

Howard Troxler: Crist is more of a fluke than a symptom of something bigger. He is a breezy populist who has always claimed conservative credentials and has never been called on it until now. Rubio is a charismatic and attractive challenger who is riding an incredibly fortuitous anti-Obama wave. If President McCain were in office, Rubio might be the one 30 points down in the polls.

Adam Smith: Florida is always a microcosm of what's happening nationally, and plenty of other incumbent governors are in trouble in this terrible economy. But Rubio happened to be a perfect candidate for this political climate, especially against a governor who almost seemed to take pride in snubbing his base over and over again.

Joni James: There are a lot of angry voters and they're not just in Florida. Voters in Virginia and Texas have recently favored conservative Republicans over more moderate candidates. But the economy is improving, albeit slower here in Florida. The key question is what will it look like in November? It's possible voters won't be so angry.

A seismic shift for Charlie Crist 04/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 1:43pm]

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