At 5:00 p.m. Thursday, all signs point to Florida Gov. Charles Crist leaving the Republican Party to run for the U.S. Senate on a ballot line that is neither Republican nor Democrat. The 53-year old moderate will announce at a park in downtown St. Petersburg that his name will be on the ballot next to "No Party Affiliated,"
as required under Florida election law for candidates outside the two major parties.
For weeks now, Crist has been telling reporters what he told me at the White House during the National Governors Association meeting here February 22: “Some friends of mine have talked to me about it [running as an independent], but I haven’t embraced it. I’m running as a Republican.”
Now he looks as though he is going to “embrace it” and “go rogue,” leaving the Republican nomination to conservative rival and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. The last Rasmussen poll conducted among likely voters statewide showed Rubio with 37%, Crist 30%, and likely Democratic nominee Rep. Kendrick Meek 22%.
How Crist came to this point is now a matter of public record. Hit hard by his public embrace of Barack Obama and support of his big-spending stimulus package, Crist watched a big lead in most polls over Rubio do a complete reversal. Some polls gave the conservative Rubio a lead of as much as 2-to-1 among likely Republican voters. Most recently, the governor vetoed SB 6, a tough measure on teachers’ performance in public schools that was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature and opposed by teachers’ unions.
The veto cost him dearly among fellow Republicans, with revered former Sen. Connie Mack (R.-Fla.) resigning as Crist’s campaign chairman over the issue. As Lee County GOP Chairman Gary Lee told me, “Crist met with the union leaders before the veto and must have gotten their support in the Senate race. They are now running TV spots in his behalf.”
Along with the teachers, Crist can count on support from some old friends. One of them, Orando financial planner Scott Peelen, told reporters yesterday he would stick with Crist. Peelen, who served as Crist’s central Florida chairman during his ’06 run for governor, added that former Vermont Gov. and Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean “promised to write Charlie a check” as well.
So with Dean, the teachers’ union, and some old friends, how far will Crist go? Not far, students of state political history insist. One authority on Florida trends noted that the most successful NPA candidate in modern times was Dr. John Grady, a conservative physician who ran an insurgent campaign for the Senate in 1974 against Democrat Dick Stone and Republican Jack Eckerd. Grady got 15% of the vote, and with Stone edging Eckerd 44% to 41%.
“But Dr. Grady was a spellbinding speaker who stood for things,” the same source told me. “Crist is just some nice guy who tries to please everyone. He’s not a candidate who moves people, such as Ross Perot or [Minnesota’s Reform Party Gov.] Jesse Ventura. Moderates don’t do wel as independents.”
He also pointed out that independent candidates such as Perot have done well in the state in North Florida and the Panhandle. “And Crist’s worst areas in the primary for governor [against moderate Tom Gallagher] in ’06 were in North Florida and the Panhandle.”
As he prepares to leave the Republican Party, Crist also leaves behind considerable ill will. Gary Lee put it best: “He is so infected with narcissism and self-interest that he jettisoned a lot of friends and loyalists, notably his mentor, Senator Mack. This will contribute to cynicism of the grassroots about politicians who they feel lack loyalty, honesty, and integrity. Charlie Crist jettisoned his integrity.”