Charlie Crist: statesman or sellout?
Democrats may be lavishing praise on Florida's Republican governor for enthusiastically supporting the Democrats' economic stimulus package, but Republicans are questioning whether Crist damaged his future in national politics.
"I don't think he's helped any national Republican ambitions he may have by stepping up to the plate and batting for the other team. … There's a difference between working in a bipartisan way for the common good and switching sides and putting on the other team's jersey," said veteran Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. "At the one moment when we've finally found our voice and remember who we are as Republicans, Charlie Crist forgets. It's stunning."
Crist's full-throated support evoked a rare rebuke from one of his closest political allies, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, who said on the Senate floor that Crist didn't get it.
"I don't know that my governor understands all the details of this package — that there will be nothing here to help with Florida's housing economy," Martinez said stressing the need for more tax cuts.
Crist acknowledged that he hasn't seen all the details, but said Florida needs federal help, period.
Still, he is way out of the Republican mainstream in supporting the $789 billion stimulus package that won just three Republican votes in the Senate and zero in the House. Even moderate Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire withdrew his nomination as President Obama's commerce secretary Thursday because he could not support the stimulus package.
"It certainly hurts Charlie Crist with the Republican base. … There's a lot of energy among Republicans across the country in opposition to this. The fury that I have seen directed against Arlen Specter and the two Maine ladies is amazing," Pat Toomey, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said, referring to the three Republican senators who voted for the package.
Not a single Florida Republican in Congress supported it, but their public opposition is potentially tricky with Florida's most popular politician, Crist, all over TV lately touting his support. Crist was side by side with Obama in Fort Myers on Tuesday stressing how much help the package could be to Floridians in the midst of an economic crisis.
"They may not be saying it outright, but the Republican delegation is very angry. If they got Charlie Crist in a dark alley, all you'd have left is a tuft of white hair," said Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant from Miami, suggesting Crist has dampened enthusiasm for a potential Senate run in 2010.
"I've gotten about four or five calls from national Republican donors saying, 'What is this guy doing? Is he really thinking of running for Senate?' " Navarro said. "We're going to spend 30 to 40 million dollars to get a Republican elected to that Senate seat, and we could end up with a guy who's going to be the 60th vote for Democrats."
Recent polls show Crist remains enormously popular in Florida, with roughly two-thirds of voters approving of his job performance. He is especially popular among crucial independent voters, and almost nobody doubts his ability to easily win re-election as governor.
But some Republicans question whether GOP anger over the stimulus package could damage Crist's standing for a future presidential campaign or a 2010 U.S. Senate bid — Crist says he'll decide about the Senate after the legislative session ends in May — and many Republicans are seething about Crist joining Obama in Fort Myers.
"Every Republican in the state of Florida is wondering where his mind is. He's cooking his own goose," said Broward County Republican state committeeman Ed Kennedy. "I worked for him, campaigned for him, raised money for him. Now we're sitting back and saying, 'My God, what do we have here?' "
Just up the coast, at a Palm Beach County Republican Party meeting Wednesday night, one activist unsuccessfully pushed for a vote to censure Crist, according to the Palm Beach Post, which reported that his censure motion drew applause before being blocked on procedural grounds.
"You still have the same division in our party between the base who are extreme and the moderates who are interested in getting something done," said Republican operative and Crist supporter Roger Stone of Miami. "The extremists love purity. And they love losing elections."
Stone said the governor, reading the poll numbers, is betting that his position will continue to prove wildly popular with the average voter. Crist needs the federal money to roll into the state to help stave off unpopular budget cuts and even less popular tax increases.
Grover Norquist, the influential conservative leader of Americans for Tax Reform, said Crist should have been wary about embracing an 800-page bill he probably had not read and stands to be loaded with unpopular spending provisions that will surface over coming weeks and months.
"This is the bill that the Republican Party will be running against in 2010 and 2012 and 2014," Norquist predicted.
Presumably Crist won't be among those running against that bill. But if the governor has any misgivings about the politics of appearing with Obama, he sure isn't showing it.
"My concern is not about what's best for one party or the other. My concern is what's best for the state and what's best for the people of Florida," he said Thursday, when he invited a mostly Democratic group of African-American legislators to the Governor's Mansion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NAACP and the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth.
"This is our president, and I wanted to show support for what he's trying to do, to help our students in the classroom, the most vulnerable in our society who deserve health care and the infrastructure benefit that this will bring about," Crist said.
Times/Herald writers Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.