Political writers and commentators like to refer to the race for the St. Petersburg, Florida seat in the U.S. House as the “most watched congressional race in the nation.” Considering the two guys running for the seat, it’s hard to imagine why this should be so.
One candidate wishing to represent this pleasant city, hard by Tampa Bay, is a political shape-changer who runs through political parties faster than Sherman ran through Georgia, and who has held every position known to man on the important issues of the day (not to mention a few positons he made up himself). The guy who holds the job now is described as a moderate, which seems to mean taking positons that people we used to call liberals take, and is so fastidious he won’t even support the candidate of his party for president.
The Democrat seeking the seat is former Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Yes, that Charlie Crist. He of the empty suit. The political wind-sock who worked his way up the Florida political food chain as a Republican — often against less that top-flight opposition — and has since amassed an impressive losing streak in state-wide races, first as an independent against Marco Rubio in the 2010 U.S. Senate Race, then as a Democrat against incumbent Governor Rick Scott in 2014. (My sources tell me that if Charlie loses this race, he will seek a seat on the St. Petersburg City Council as a Vegetarian.) Put these two losses with a 1998 loss to Bob Graham in that year’s U.S. Senate race, and Crist has lost statewide elections as a Republican, as an independent, and as a Democrat. An achievement no other Floridian can claim.
The Republican is incumbent David Jolly, a former congressional assistant and lobbyist. He won the seat in a special election in March of 2014 after the death of Republican Bill Young, who had held the seat since shortly after the end of the Peloponnesian War.
Jolly is considerably less than a conservative red-hot. The ideological rating agencies give him conservative scores well below the Republican average. His political sins, as conservatives see them, include but are not limited to supporting same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court discovered a right to such unions, voting against Paul Ryan’s budget because he considered it “too conservative,” being MIA in the fight to defund Planned Parenthood, and being critical of those who were pleased to see the end of former House Speaker John Boehner. The cherry on top of this sundae is that Jolly has declined to endorse Donald Trump for president, and said he has not decided yet whether he will vote for him or not.
One of the more amusing aspects of this race is a kind of political cross-dressing. It’s Crist the Democrat who is trying to tie Trump around the Republican’s neck, while Jolly is trying to tie Trump to the Democrat Crist. The only reasonable response to this unedifying development is, “Huh?”
“This Republican primary season has been pretty frightening,” Crist said in a statement released by his campaign. “It saddens me to think that anyone who supports Donald Trump’s agenda could ever represent Pinellas County.”
Jolly responded that there’s a lot about Trump’s agenda he doesn’t fancy. Jolly even urged Trump to drop out of the presidential race after Trump said America should stop allowing Muslims into the country. Jolly added that Trump has hosted Crist campaign events in the past and has donated to Crist’s campaigns. So who’s the Trumpster here?
The conventional wisdom (always conventional, not always wise) is that the race is Crist’s to lose. St. Petersburg is Crist’s home town and lots of folks here like him, though when asked they are hard-pressed to say why. Much of this support, or course, has to do with Charlie’s surface charm. He’s a personable fellow with no sharp edges (some long-time Charlie watchers would say no edges at all, not to mention no center). He remembers everyone’s name, and never fails to tell voters how much he LUVs them. But one sure way to create silence in a raucous political discussion is to ask the participants to name three Crist accomplishments in the many offices he has held.
Okay, name one.
While the St. Petersburg congressional district was slightly Republican majority until this cycle, a court ordered redrawing of the district’s lines (another story for another day) leaves it with 18,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Advantage Charlie. But it’s not clear how independent voters are leaning, a cohort nearly as big that of either major party. (And surely even a number of Democrats are wondering how many times Charlie can be born again politically.) Polls on this race point in both directions. The latest, released earlier this week, should make David jolly, as it shows him ahead by three points. Other polls have shown Crist with a lead. At this point, prudent prognosticators should withdraw after suggesting the November 8 results will “likely be close.”
The one and only debate in this race was held Monday night before a full house at the Palladium Theater in downtown St. Petersburg and broadcast on the local CBS affiliate. Hard to tell how large the TV audience for the hour-long debate was. But after Crist at one point said if he were elected he would represent the district without the partisan bickering he says turns off voters, the hour was mostly, well, bickering.
Crist, predictably, attacked Jolly for being a conservative extremist, which is beyond unsupportable. Jolly said Crist was unreliable, peppering him with quotes and positions Crist took as a Reagan Republican, just a few years before Barrack Obama replaced Reagan as the politician Crist most admires.
The debate was not billed as comedy, and those who came to the Palladium or tuned in on TV weren’t looking for laughs. But there was one big laugh, and it came at Crist’s expense. Asked by one of the moderators if he was keen on Hillary Clinton for president, he answered:
“I am proud of Hillary Clinton. I think she’s been a very good secretary of state, a very good senator from the state of New York. The thing I like most about her is I believe she is steady. I believe that she is strong. I believe that she is honest, and I look forward to voting for her.”
Few in the audience heard about how it was that Charlie is going to vote for Hillary because everything after “I believe that she is honest” was buried in laughter and cat-calls. As it should have been. That is funny, even if this race isn’t.