GOP may back little-known Democrat in effort to defeat Crist

Published Sept. 12, 2013

Little-known and struggling financially, Nan Rich might get some help from the unlikeliest of places during the Democratic primary race for governor: supporters of Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott's top political adviser and pollster, Tony Fabrizio, hinted at the scheme late Tuesday night in a rare appearance at the Women's Republican Club of Miami.

Team Scott's ultimate goal: vex Charlie Crist, a well-known former governor and Republican-turned-independent-turned-Dem­ocrat who might run against Rich to unseat Scott.

"I don't know if Charlie Crist wins the primary against Nan Rich. And that's not saying that Nan Rich wouldn't have help," Fabrizio said with a smile. "You never know. There could be interested citizens that like to help Nan Rich. … Nan Rich is the true Democrat."

Said Rich: "I'll take all the help I can get so I can then beat Rick Scott in the general election. And I agree with Tony Fabrizio: Let's have a real Democrat face Scott so we can have a real debate."

Coincidentally, the legal-lobbying firm Becker & Poliakoff is fundraising for both Rich and Scott.

Asked if he had a comment, Crist said by text message: "Not really."

Fabrizio, though, indicated the help-Rich plan isn't a definite and could hinge on yet another variable: Alex Sink, who narrowly lost to Scott in 2010 and has recently renewed talk of running in 2014.

A three-way Democratic race changes the calculus.

"In a three-way race, Charlie can hold onto enough moderate Democrats inside that primary that he could get 35, 38 percent of the vote and win," Fabrizio said.

"Sink isn't liberal enough to get to Charlie's left," he added. "In order to beat Charlie, you need a one-on-one race, and you need a clear-cut liberal versus a guy who has spent his whole life being a conservative. That's the race you need to beat him in a Democratic primary."

Sink said she wasn't surprised about any of the talk.

"It's no secret that business interests, such as the insurance industry, are anti-Charlie Crist," she said. "There has been talk about them doing something in the Democratic primary. But in the general election, they'll be with Scott."

The fact that the calculus is being done and announced is vintage Fabrizio. So is the fact that it's unclear whether the devious plan is real or a threat.

Constantly polling and honing political messages, Fabrizio's expertise lies in mining the right message out of public-opinion data and triangulating opponents. Those skills helped Scott, a complete newcomer, upset the political establishment in Florida and become governor in 2010.

Scott and Fabrizio are ready for a repeat four years later, though getting Scott re-elected will be a challenge.

Fabrizio acknowledged that Scott's approval ratings are only in the 40s. The last Quinnipiac University poll, in June, indicated that Crist would beat Scott by 10 percentage points, while Scott would beat Rich by 6.

But Scott has a massive personal fortune and spent a considerable amount of personal money, $75.1 million, along with about $25 million from donors and the party in 2010. Scott is prepared for another $100 million campaign, but this time he won't have to burn much of it in a GOP primary, as he did four years before.

Fabrizio said Scott's strategy for 2014 includes an increase in get-out-the-vote field operations and data-targeting, in addition to spending gobs of money on TV ads.

Rich, a former state senator from Weston, has money problems and low name recognition. She has raised just $160,000 in a year and spent $101,000 of it as of June 30, the last reporting period for which data are available.

To mount a successful statewide campaign in Florida, a candidate often needs a minimum of $10 million.

"If I had to guess, there are going to be concerned citizens that are interested in seeing that the Democratic Party stays true to their citizens," Fabrizio said with a wink.

"We want to see the easiest opponent possible," he said. "Are we afraid of Charlie Crist? Not in the least bit. Not in the least bit."

Fabrizio pointed out that Crist once ran as a conservative but now says he's more of a centrist Democrat. In addition, Crist's term as governor through the economic crisis was marked with economic hardship, job loss and budget deficits.

The economy has improved since then, and Scott is poised to take a measure of credit.

Crist has blamed the global recession for the problems that happened under his watch and credited President Obama's fixes — not Scott's — for improving the economy. He's also writing a book that paints the GOP as so extremist that it left him.

Fabrizio dismissed the book as "fiction" and said he hopes Crist announces soon so they can pound him.

"Once he becomes a candidate, he has a big bull's eye on his back. … And not just from the Republican Party of Florida, but from the Democrats themselves," Fabrizio said. "The average rank-and-file voter, yeah, they want to beat Rick Scott. But they're not sure they want to sell their souls to beat Rick Scott."