TALLAHASSEE — With a stroke of his veto pen, Gov. Charlie Crist declared his independence from Republican policy and politicians Thursday and set the stage for a go-for-broke independent run for the U.S. Senate.
For Crist, such a defiant strategy would complete his political evolution. He called himself a "Jeb Bush Republican" when he ran for governor in 2006 and has governed as a non-ideological populist.
Any doubt that Crist would put the veto of Senate Bill 6 to use for political gain was soon answered. Three hours after the announcement, he got a triumphant welcome at Leon High near the Capitol where a pep band and hundreds of cheering teachers and students gave the event the feel of a campaign rally.
"The people spoke and they spoke loudly," Crist told the crowd. "It is the power of people over politics."
Abandoning the Republican Party that helped him win three statewide elections and morphing into a nonpartisan "people's candidate" would free Crist of partisan shackles and pit him against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek in November.
Crist won't discuss his candidacy plans, but the reality is he has little choice because of a staggering loss of support in his own party. Rubio has recently outpaced Crist in fundraising while polls show the former House speaker with a commanding 20-point lead.
Running as an unaffiliated or independent candidate would be a game-changer for Crist. While Rubio would become the Republican Senate nominee, Crist would shift the contest to a higher turnout November general election, his strong suit. A Quinnipiac poll Thursday showed that scenario would win Crist the three-way race.
Crist is boxed in politically. His political future is in peril. The former quarterback who loves sports analogies needs to throw a Hail Mary.
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Crist's veto action so angered legislative leaders that the next speaker of the House, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, withdrew his Senate endorsement. Rep. John Tobia, R-Satellite Beach, also dropped his support.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, sponsor of the teacher tenure bill and chairman of the state Republican Party, was asked whether Crist is a "real Republican." His reply: "He's got an 'R' in back of his name right now."
Asked if Crist's veto damaged his chances of winning the Republican Senate nomination, Thrasher said: "I don't know what his chances are now. They don't look too good now, best as I can tell."
Thrasher and other Republicans said the veto was driven in part by misinformation spread by teachers through their union. But a Crist ally, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, disagreed.
"This was no longer a teachers union issue,'' Fasano said. "This Senate Bill 6 took on a life of its own, and I saw that in my district when hard-core Republicans, who vote in Republican primaries, were contacting me, telling me to urge the governor to veto the bill. This was no longer a union, or Democratic issue. This went beyond that.''
Crist's veto on the heels of his rejection of a leadership funds bill that was a priority of key GOP lawmakers further alienates him from the Republican legislative leadership.
It also could foreshadow more vetoes in the last two weeks of the session. If Crist decides to run as an independent candidate, he will revel in every opportunity to distance himself from party orthodoxy to demonstrate to voters that he's above politics.
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About one of every five Florida voters is not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Party. To win the Senate seat, Crist obviously would need to capture votes from both parties.
In a three-way race in November, Crist likely could count on the support of the Florida Education Association, the influential teachers union that is deeply indebted to the governor for his veto (and which also will endorse Meek, leader of the union-backed 2002 class size amendment).
"Somebody listened to us," said an emotional Terrie Brady, president of Jacksonville-based Duval Teachers United, where she said two-thirds of members are Republicans. "I can't believe that he did this. After today, we'll make a decision as a statewide organization what we're going to do."
Under state law, Crist could run as a no-party candidate for Senate and remain a registered Republican. He has until noon April 30 — coincidentally, the last day of the annual legislative session — to submit qualifying papers as a Senate candidate.
Most of his current fundraising money could be kept and used for the general election.
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Crist stoked the speculation Thursday by repeatedly refusing to say whether he would run as a Republican Senate candidate.
"That's the last thing on my mind right now," Crist said. "I'm so grateful for being able to have the kind of government that we do that gives us a check and balance in our branches of government. It's a wonderful thing."
At a time when politicians increasingly study anonymous online comments as one barometer of public opinion, Sen. Fasano was struck by the favorable tone of what he read online. "I have not seen such positive comments toward Charlie Crist on any issue in months," Fasano said.
Republican lobbyist and strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Crist supporter, said an independent candidacy would create an "open primary" where people of all political stripes could cast ballots for Crist, muffling the influence of hard-right conservatives and tea party members who back Rubio.
Stipanovich said he has not discussed a possible independent candidacy with the governor, but he added: "The political graveyard of Florida is littered with the bodies of people who underestimated Charlie Crist."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, John Frank, Mary Ellen Klas and Lee Logan and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.