TAMPA — OK, Charlie doesn’t have to declare a mayday yet. But it’s probably time for him to start worrying. Mr. Inevitable is beginning to look like just another Senate candidate. A candidate fully capable of blowing a large lead by next August.
Charlie is Florida’s mercurial populist governor, Charlie Crist, a registered Republican but an enabler of some of the left’s worst impulses. Charlie puts the RINO in RINO.
Crist has been the overwhelming favorite over conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio in a race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat Mel Martinez recently resigned from. Polls, the last public one in August, have shown Crist ahead by more than 20 points. The lead mainly reflects the governor’s higher name recognition. The same polls show that between voters who know about both candidates the race is essentially a dead heat.
As damning for Rubio as the polls was the dialing-for-dollars score. In the second quarter Rubio collected a feeble $340K to Crist’s gaudy $4.3 million. The “experts” said Rubio couldn’t be taken seriously until he started bringing in enough money to run a statewide campaign in Florida, a large, diverse, ten-media-market state.
Well, now he has. In the third quarter Rubio collected right at a million dollars. Serious money for a candidate more and more people, both in Florida and nationwide, are taking seriously. A real race is on now between a man who has consistently walked the conservative walk and a man who has hardly been consistent about anything, except his desire to hold public office, for the whole of his political career.
Crist reports bringing in $2.4 million this cycle, but this doesn’t deter the Rubio campaign, which all along has said it doesn’t need to match the governor dollar for dollar. It only needs to bring in enough to get Rubio’s conservative story before Florida voters. Any sitting governor can be a contribution-magnet. But Crist’s connections with big money from such as plaintiffs’ lawyers, corporate executives, and New York socialites (this last group greased by Crist’s newly acquired New York socialite bride) has helped him achieve the outlandish amount his campaign has collected so far. And Crist may be reaching the point of diminishing returns in campaign money. How many ads featuring a smiling Charlie can Floridians watch between now and the August primary?
The larger fraction of Rubio’s contributions has come from individuals in Florida, but his campaign has been attracting attention from national conservatives, including favorable coverage from many of the country’s conservative publications and pundits. After the million-dollar quarter was announced, Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist told the St. Petersburg Times that Rubio will surely generate interest because “This is the only race in a major state that has a clear-cut campaign for the future of the Republican Party…. It may be the Reaganite candidate vs. the sort of John McCain candidate.”
Apt comparison. Crist is every bit as erratic and as inclined to stiff conservatives in the name of some trendy, liberal nonsense as McCain has been.
Rubio’s recent financial success has also attracted the attention of Club for Growth executive director David Keating, who said if a close examination of Rubio’s financial performance shows he has a chance to prevail, donations from his members could reach as high as seven figures. He said Rubio’s campaign is looking like the real deal now.
Since running for governor in 2006 as a Jeb Bush conservative (Bush preceded Crist in the governor’s mansion in Florida), Crist has been a political chameleon, occasionally using conservative rhetoric about keeping taxes and government regulation low while at the same time supporting some very un-conservative things.
The list of charges and specifications against Crist in the Court of Conservative Opinion is long. He’s supported Obama’s $787 billion deficit stimulator and has whooped up the horrible idea of a carbon cap and trade program. He’s tried to curry favor with environmentalists in various costly ways, including trying to oblige Florida’s utilities to generate 20 percent of their electric power using the boutique fuels that generate heat in the hearts of environmentalists but very little light. He recently appointed a liberal justice to the Florida Supreme Court.
Crist has lately been singing a more conservative tune, including talking of Obama as a one-term president. But as he’s been all over the political map — left, right, and center — over the past two years, no one much is listening, least of all conservative Republicans who dominate Republican primary elections (especially off-years one like 2010 will be).
More alarming to Crist supporters than the opinion of the likes of Norquist and George Will (who in a recent column flatly predicted Rubio would win and enumerated why he should), is the wholesale desertion of Crist by the conservative base of the party, including many who supported Crist when he ran for governor in 2006. The mutineers are active even in Crist’s home county of Pinellas (St. Petersburg-Clearwater).
Pinellas Republican state committeeman Tony DiMatteo told me the members of his executive committee “don’t want to see another Arlen Specter in the Senate.” He said in 2006 when Crist ran for governor as a conservative the Pinellas Republican Party worked hard for him and contributed $50K to his campaign.
But in office Crist has not governed in a manner DiMatteo or his colleagues recognize as conservative. It was a kind of bait and switch. Buyers’ remorse set in as DiMatteo et al. watched Crist go on stage with Obama in Florida to help sell our rookie president’s “stimulus” slush fund. For many, buyers’ remorse morphed into anger and resentment. DiMatteo declines to talk percentages, but he does predict that when his committee holds a straw vote in January, he likes Rubio’s chances.
Rubio has already has done extraordinarily well with the Republican base, winning eight county executive committee straw votes by a combined 358-32, including a 73-9 win in Pasco County, which borders Pinellas. But a win for Rubio in Crist’s home county would be huge for the Rubio campaign. What Republicans know Charlie better?
After Rubio’s fundraising success, even the distinctly un-conservative Washington Post, in its political feature “The Fix,” called Rubio’s million dollars “The Most Important Number in Politics Today.” This might overstate things a bit. But Rubio’s respectable haul gives a genuinely conservative candidate the resources to run a real campaign against a big-government, establishment Republican. The numbers in Las Vegas are being re-calculated as we speak. Stay tuned. This one will be lively, fun, and important.