Crist makes move to return as Florida’s governor
The only surprise about former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s switch from Republican to Democrat was the timing and location. The former Florida governor, who left the GOP to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as an independent two years ago, made his final cross-over to the Democratic side Friday evening at the White House in Washington, D.C. In so doing, Crist was warmly welcomed by President Obama, whose re-election he strongly endorsed and whom he hailed in November as a “great man.”
The 56-year-old Crist’s party switch was long anticipated, as is a race by the newly-minted Democrat for his old job in 2014. For now, the situation looks quite promising for a comeback by Crist. Republican Gov. Rick Scott is in political peril after overseeing major spending cuts and refusing federal dollars to build a high-speed rail system in the Sunshine State. A Florida Opinion Research poll in May showed him trailing Crist by a margin of 48 to 34 percent statewide among likely voters. A more recent poll showed Crist leading Scott by only 44 to 42 percent. That’s close, but the former governor nonetheless is running ahead of the incumbent.
But working against Crist is the history of Republican politicians who tried their hands at winning as Democrats. It’s not pretty.
In 2010, with polls showing Pennsylvania Republicans outraged at his key votes with the Obama administration and running behind conservative opponent Pat Toomey, Sen. Arlen Specter joined the Democratic Party. But Keystone State Democrats were not buying him. Far-left Rep. Joe Sestak challenged Specter in the primary and slammed him for his support of the Bush administration on Iraq and its two Supreme Court appointees. Sestak defeated the celebrated convert Specter.
The last Republican House Member to cross the aisle to the Democratic side was Long Island-area Rep. Michael Forbes in 1998. Then-President Clinton and other national Democrats welcomed him with open arms. Democrats in his 1st District did not and, in a hard-fought primary, Forbes’ record in Congress—including a 100 percent rating with the Christian Coalition was highlighted for his new party’s registered voters. Forbes lost.
The last Republican office-holder to successfully pull off the “old switcheroo” was liberal Rep. Don Riegle, who cited differences with the Nixon Administration on Vietnam and civil rights as reasons for joining the Democratic Party in 1973. Three years later, Riegle topped a four-candidate primary for U.S. Senate, won in November, and served until his retirement in 1994.
As a Republican, Riegle had a decidedly liberal record in Congress that resonated in his later political home, the Democratic Party. Specter (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 42.17 percent) and Forbes (lifetime ACU rating: 70 percent) had records in which they cast quite a few votes on the conservative side, and in the case of both men, those votes came back to bite.
As much as Charlie Crist irked conservatives in his former party with his seeming obsession with global warming and support for environmental constraints and the Obama stimulus package, he was also strongly pro-life and pro-death penalty. As state attorney general, his hard-nosed support for state prisoners on chain gangs earned him the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie.”
And when Obamacare was passed by the House in 2010, the then-governor of Florida charged that the president ignored “the will of the people” by securing the controversial measure’s enactment in a partisan-run House.
Republicans have a long history of welcoming Democrats and helping promote them. Texas Rep. Phil Gramm of Texas, for example, switched from Republican to Democrat in 1981 and was nominated and elected U.S. Senator three years later. Alabama’s current Sen. Richard Shelby switched in 1994 and has since chaired two Senate committees and been re-elected with little trouble.
Where Democrats have little trouble after becoming Republicans, modern history shows it doesn’t seem to work so easily the other way around.