Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to run as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate is good for the political process and good for Florida. It broadens the discussion of issues, lessens the influence of both major political parties and gives voters a wider range of choices in November. It also should generate more excitement about the race, increase voter turnout and provide a clearer picture of where Floridians stand on the political spectrum.
The Republican governor, who made his announcement Thursday evening in St. Petersburg's Straub Park, has rattled the political world from Washington to Tallahassee by deciding to run with no party affiliation. The reality is Crist had no other choice if he wanted to remain a viable Senate candidate. Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami had a commanding lead in the Republican primary, and the state's Republican leadership has moved to the extreme right and out of mainstream Florida.
Oddly enough for an incumbent governor, Crist makes a compelling case to voters frustrated with the status quo that he offers a fresh approach. He stood up to members of his own party by vetoing legislation that created political slush funds for leading lawmakers. Further angering Republicans, he courageously vetoed an education bill that would have ended tenure for new teachers and used standardized tests to help calculate teacher raises. The bill's broad concepts were sound, but the specifics and the execution were terrible. Crist's mantra of listening to the people gets tiresome, but it is an appealing quality that too many politicians lack.
By running as an independent, Crist has broken free of the Republican shackles that enforce ideology and limit the possibilities of compromise. He already is branded as a traitor and an opportunist, and the GOP attacks will get worse if he remains competitive. But Crist has consistently staked out populist positions on issues ranging from education to property insurance, from fighting utility rate increases to embracing environmental issues. He is entering uncharted territory as a conservative running without party affiliation, but the potential is there to develop a campaign that pitches commonsense solutions over more partisan fighting in Washington.
Crist's decision also is good news for U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Meek is little known outside South Florida and has received scant attention because of the Republican infighting. Now he gets a boost, because the political calculus changes in a three-way race in November. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 700,000 in Florida, and the winner of a close Senate race could have less than 35 percent of the vote.
Rubio is presented with new challenges. He insists he will not change his ultraconservative strategy based on criticizing President Barack Obama, health care reform and federal stimulus money. That hard line drew enough Republican support to force Crist to abandon the GOP primary. Conventional wisdom suggests extreme, uncompromising positions by candidates who have not run statewide before have little chance of success in the general election.
Yet Crist set conventional wisdom on its ear Thursday, and old political calculations may no longer hold. For Florida voters, that's a good thing.