Even before Republican Gov. Charlie Crist launched his independent bid for the U.S. Senate, he was inviting well-heeled supporters — many of them Democrats — to Miami on Sunday evening to hear what could be the most important sales pitch of his career.
More than ever, the governor viewed with anger and suspicion by many conservatives will be tapping an unusually wide pool of potential donors that includes Democrats and liberal special interest groups like trial lawyers and the teachers union.
Crist's campaign finance chairman, Brent Sembler, called Crist's fundraising ability as a nonpartisan candidate limited. The governor has traditionally amassed vast campaign war chests with big checks, not from a grass roots, Internet-fueled network of small donations more suited to a party-free campaign.
"But I will tell you that a Democratic lawyer that I use called me unsolicited and said, 'I like what Charlie's done. I want to do a fundraiser. Are you still involved?' " the St. Petersburg developer said. "So I think there's a lot of love for Charlie out there."
That remains to be seen. Many Republican donors are demanding refunds from their onetime standard bearer, now in a three-way race against the presumptive GOP nominee, Marco Rubio, and the leading Democrat, Kendrick Meek. The Republican Party of Florida is circulating Crist's campaign address and phone number and urging donors to seek refunds.
Miami lobbyist Al Cardenas, a former state GOP chairman who has raised money for Crist, dashed off a letter Friday to the governor that read: "Please be advised that I am endorsing our next U.S. Senator from Florida, Speaker Marco Rubio."
Among the Democrats and Republicans invited to meet with Crist Sunday at the Grand Beach Hotel in Miami Beach: Former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, Sarasota chiropractor Gary Kompothecras, Miami lawyer S. Daniel Ponce, Fort Lauderdale lawyer Bill Berger, Belinda Keiser of Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale and Rodney Barreto of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"I think people are tired of the gridlock and see a moderate who can be independent and calls it like he sees it," Ponce said. "The financial piece will be difficult without a party to support him, but Crist will find other opportunities."
Other potential sources of campaign cash for Crist: the teachers union, which successfully lobbied him to veto a controversial tenure bill, and the Seminole Tribe, which recently signed a lucrative gambling deal with the state.
The Florida Education Association traditionally leans Democratic, and Meek's leadership on the constitutional amendment limiting class sizes has earned him widespread goodwill among educators. But if the Miami congressman continues to trail Rubio and Crist in the polls, the union could hedge its bets.
Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen, a top Democratic fundraiser, hailed the governor for supporting the Obama administration's economic stimulus package and for appointing an African-American, James Perry, to the Florida Supreme Court.
"I told Charlie, 'You did the right thing then, and I'll do the right thing now,' " Cohen said.
St. Petersburg businessman Fazal Fazlin, a Republican who backed Barack Obama, plans to host a second fundraiser for Crist now that he's an independent candidate.
"Now we've got new friends — people who didn't want to give before when he was running as a Republican are wanting to give now," Fazlin said.
In contrast, the National Republican Senate Committee demanded its money back from Crist on Thursday and vowed to throw resources behind Rubio. The pro-Rubio Club for Growth is ramping up a refund campaign, even though the law does not require Crist to give money back for bowing out of the GOP primary.
"Every dollar in Charlie Crist's campaign war chest was dishonestly raised, and he now has an obligation to refund his ill-gotten contributions to all those who request their money back," said the nationwide, antitax group.
Crist has told some donors that he would give them pro-rated refunds, since he has spent some of his donations.
Not all die-hard Republicans are denouncing Crist as a traitor. Tampa developer Al Austin said he's staying neutral so he can concentrate on bringing the 2012 GOP convention to Tampa.
"I'm not asking for my money back," said former Gov. Bob Martinez. "Charlie and I have had a longtime friendship. He's a good human being. He's a good public servant."