Independent or not, there’s no third way out for Charlie Crist.
Citing campaign sources, several national and Florida media reported Wednesday that RINO Florida Governor Charlie Crist had already made the decision to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent. He probably has. But Crist is famous for changing his mind. Just a couple of weeks ago Crist was assuring us he would run as a Republican.
After a cabinet meeting in Tallahassee Tuesday, the 53-year-old Crist said he would decide by today what he wants to be when he grows up. Those who’ve followed Crist’s career doubt he will have this important question nailed down by today, or perhaps ever. But at least he’ll be able to decide whether he wishes to lose to conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican Senate primary August 24, or run as an independent and lose in a race including Rubio and Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek of Miami on November 2. Filing for the Senate race in Florida closes at noon Friday.
Neither of these choices is attractive. But they’re what are left to the once-popular governor, who many Florida voters, including a majority of Republicans, have spotted as a flip-flopper, a philosophical non-working number, and an opportunist. Although many national and Florida media, and Democrats, are claiming the decision is momentous and changes the dynamics in Florida, it almost certainly doesn’t. Conservative Rubio still has the strongest hand. Liberal Meek is weak, as is the ideologically agnostic Crist.
Crist is a political lightweight who has held a succession of Florida offices in flush times, won mainly on the basis of a pleasing manner, a good shoe-shine, and a facility to convince Florida voters that he just L-U-Vs them. As the situation requires, Crist is comfortable being conservative, liberal, moderate, populist, vegetarian, high-church, low-church, no-church, or fill-in-the-blank. He bats and throws left, right, and center.
In 2010, when Florida Republican voters are looking for a principled conservative candidate, Crist finds himself without the goods, and without a base. Rubio is having no such identity problem. He filed for the Senate seat Tuesday as a Republican.
“I’m the only candidate in this race that will stand up to this [Democratic] agenda and offer clear alternatives,” Rubio said while officially declaring his candidacy in Miami. “My positions are mainstream American positions. They talk about limited government, the free enterprise system, and how the world is a better place when America is the strongest country in the world.”
Florida voters have heard nothing like this from Crist, which is why going into “decision week” the Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Crist trailing Rubio by 22.8 points in the Republican primary race.
Crist’s prospects as an independent, certain polls withstanding, aren’t much better than his zero-chance as a Republican. Crist took heart from a recent Quinnipiac Poll showing that he would be competitive in a three-way race for the Senate seat. In fact, the Q Poll showed Crist with 32 percent of the vote to Rubio’s 30 percent, with Democrat Kendrick Meek at 24. The poll showed Crist with the vote of 30 percent of self-identified Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats. Many media outlets have used this poll as a basis for stories maintaining Crist is a real contender as an independent. In the absence of something that incapacitates Rubio’s campaign, he isn’t.
A more recent Rasmussen poll showed Rubio ahead with 37 percent to Crist’s 30 percent and Meek trailing. Still within shouting distance for Crist. But the history of third party and independent candidates is that they fade badly at the end and don’t do well on election day. Most voters who fancy exotics during election run-ups then sober up and vote for the candidates of major parties at the end. The last candidate not a member of one of the major political parties to win statewide office in Florida was Sidney J. Cains, who won the governorship as a member of the Prohibition Party in 1916.
Most third-party candidates who make a good showing do so because they’ve caught the right side of a popular emotional issue and they’re charismatic personalities. Crist is not identified with any issue beyond keeping himself in office, and he’s hardly charismatic. He represents the radical middle in a year when Florida votes are, to a degree rarely seen, either left or right.
If Crist indeed goes bare today, he will be free of the stigma of trailing Marco Rubio badly in the race for the Republican nomination. But he will immediately inherit new problems, including campaign fund-raising.
Crist pulled in lots of campaign cash early when it appeared he was a sure winner against the then little-known Rubio. Establishment money and endorsements rolled in before conservative Rubio began rolling over Crist in what has turned out to be a conservative election cycle. Crist has about $7.5 million in his campaign account, but his fundraising has slowed markedly. Without a party, without a base, and without a message, he’d have trouble adding to this.
In fact, Crist may wind up with less than this to spend. The conservative Club for Growth, which is backing Rubio and bundling campaign contributions for him, has pledged to contact Republican donors who’ve given money to Crist and instruct them on how to ask for their donations back. A similar campaign by the club after Arlen Specter became a Democrat cost Specter about $800,000 in returned campaign cash, according to Club for Growth spokesman Mike Connolly.
Although Crist is not legally obliged to return contributions because he’s changed party status, it would be smart to do so as quickly and quietly as possible.
“Crist could keep every dime,” Connolly told me. “But the PR would be terrible. If he keeps the money for his campaign it would play into his biggest vulnerability, which is his reputation as a loser and an unprincipled opportunist.”
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