Is there room in the Republican Party for Charlie Crist?
It's a crazy question, considering the GOP these days is only marginally more popular than the flu, while the Republican governor of America's biggest battleground state enjoys astronomical approval ratings.
But it's worth pondering now that moderate Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has become a Democrat, and the political world is convinced that the moderate Florida governor is about to run for the U.S. Senate. If Crist runs and wins, he will join Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — a pair reviled by many conservatives — as the only Republican senators who supported President Barack Obama's stimulus package.
"If you agree with Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe on some of these issues, you might as well become a Democrat,'' said former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Republican who is likely to run for the Senate, whether or not Crist does.
The national Republican Party, reeling from a string of electoral losses since 2006, is engaged in finger-pointing and soul-searching about its future. Polls show just over one in five adults now identify themselves as Republicans, the lowest level in decades, and the GOP is losing ground with the most important demographic groups for long-term viability — Hispanic and young voters.
Yet party leaders are nowhere close to consensus on why they're shrinking so fast and what to do about it. With a Crist-Rubio matchup, Florida's Republican Senate primary could be a proxy fight for the party's soul.
"I don't think we have a shrinking movement, we have a shrinking party,'' said Rubio, drawing a distinction between conservatism and the party label. "If the Republican Party is not going to be an effective and authentic alternative to what the Democratic Party is offering, it will continue shrinking."
That's a widely held view among many leading conservatives. But many others hold the view that Republicans will lose still more ground if they insist on ideological purity that turns off the broad middle.
"The Republican Party could well go the way of the Whigs. You don't succeed in politics through subtraction. It's all about addition,'' said Roger Stone of Miami, a Republican consultant who chaired Specter's presidential campaign in 1996.
Stone scoffed at the notion that the path out of the political wilderness is a harder line on conservatism. "You're telling me we lost Hispanic voters because we weren't conservative enough? Or we lost voters between 18 and 35 because we weren't conservative enough? Nonsense. What we need to be is inclusive."
Specter was clear about why he switched parties: It was his only hope for keeping his job. Polls showed him trailing badly in next year's Republican primary to Pat Toomey, a former congressman and leader of the conservative Club for Growth.
"Specter's switch doesn't change anything. He did this so he could survive the election 18 months from now,'' said Ken Jones of Tampa, who was a senior aide to former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott.
Jones does not have strong concerns about the direction of the party, and notes that polls show Obama is much more popular than many of his policies.
"I think the Republican Party has had a fairly consistent message about limited government. Do we have to retool the whole party? I don't think so. I do think we need some new, up-and-coming leadership," Jones said.
Political trends in Pennsylvania, a state Karl Rove in 2004 and John McCain in 2008 wrongly insisted was ripe to turn Republican red, underscore the challenges Republicans could face everywhere. In the Philadelphia suburbs, 200,000 Republicans became Democrats in 2008, the kind of swing voters unlikely to be won over by ardent social or ideological conservatives.
Republicans also are losing ground in voter registration in Florida, though the state still leans far more Republican than Pennsylvania.
"Maybe it's more about Pennsylvania and where the party there is than Washington,'' said Crist, playing down any broad significance to Specter switching parties.
Democrats are already worried about the prospect of Senate candidate Crist. The national party launched a TV ad last week in Tallahassee casting the governor as a do-nothing opportunist ready to skip to a new job now that his current job is getting difficult.
Crist says he will make a decision on the Senate after the Legislature finishes the session on Friday, but said the likelihood of Democrats soon having a filibuster-proof Senate majority won't have any bearing.
If he embraced bipartisanship in Washington as he has in Tallahassee, Crist would emerge as a national leader of a breed of Republican that is teetering on extinction.
Florida Republican chairman Jim Greer said the GOP should have been more tolerant of some of Specter's positions.
"You cannot be so rigid that at the end of the day what you end up with is less than what you started with," said Greer, dismissing any analogy between Specter and Crist. "The political circumstances are significantly different, number one because of the electorate (in Pennsylvania compared with Florida), and number two there has been a long-standing uncomfortable relationship with Arlen Specter and the Republican Party. That doesn't exist with Charlie Crist."
Not yet. But the grumbling about Crist is growing among the conservative base, and it is sure to rise more if he faces a well-funded Republican challenging him from the right.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241.