Charlie Crist: Man Without a Party

Sep 13, 2012 by

There was a lot of buzz about former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist speaking at the Democratic National Convention, given that he’s served in numerous elected offices over the past few decades as a Republican.

After one term, Crist left the governor’s office in 2010 with support across party lines. Affable and exceedingly polite, his door was open to legislators in both parties. He was considered a moderate, in part because of his measured positions on education and environmental issues, and his willingness to include the minority party in his decision-making.

Instead of running for a second term, Crist opted to run for the U.S. Senate. His bipartisan support and non-combative nature made him an attractive general election candidate for people weary of political gridlock. But his willingness to veto unpopular legislation passed by his Republican-led legislature made him vulnerable in the primary. And indeed, he drew an opponent, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Republican loyalists were disappointed with Crist’s propensity for compromise and cooperation, traits once considered admirable. But as long as he held the power of the governor’s office, and controlled the party’s finances and organization, they fell in line. As a result, Crist was able to amass a large campaign war chest.

But once the legislative session ended — and bills were either signed or vetoed — his power began to wane, along with his hold of the party’s resources. During this same period, his hand-picked chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, Jim Greer, was mired in legal and financial problems for questionable practices. Rubio, then a dark horse, benefitted from Crist’s woes with the hard-core party loyalists.

An astute politician, Crist decided his best course was to run for the Senate as an independent. But it’s a daunting task to run without the backing of a political party, which brings volunteers, events and the mother’s milk of politics, money.

Once he left the party, Crist’s fundraising dried up. Long-time supporters proved more loyal to the party than to the man. And his ability to attract Democrats diminished because there was a Democrat in the race, Kendrick Meek. With Republicans angry with him and Democrats supporting their own candidate, Crist was literally in no man’s land.

Interestingly, more and more voters these days are registering either as independents or as “no party affiliate.” But candidates who run as independents or NPA have a tough time raising money and reaching significant numbers of voters.

So today, nearly two years after losing in a three-way race, Crist, the once-rising Republican star who was considered for vice president in 2008, remains an outcast. Like a bad breakup, the GOP no longer wants to date Charlie Crist, but neither does it want him to date anyone else.

While still not affiliated with either major party, Crist recently endorsed President Obama for reelection, setting off widespread speculation that he might be eyeing a run for governor in 2014 against Republican Rick Scott, who is struggling in the polls.

Crist’s speech at the DNC infuriated Republican loyalists. The response was quick and furious. Ads were aired to discredit his integrity and sincerity, painting him not as the liberal they believe him to be, but as a conservative who would not be acceptable to Democrats.

Which begs the question: is the GOP worried about a Crist comeback as a Democrat? The RPOF claims it just wants to point out his record of changing his mind, his position and his party. But why waste party resources if he’s not viewed as a future threat when those funds could be used in this election cycle? Are the party’s actions fueled by fear or loathing?

Still, the key question is, will Democrats, who are happy to accept Crist in the party, be willing to back him for governor over others who feel they’ve earned the chance to top the ticket after years of working in the trenches? Are Florida’s Democrats so eager to replace Scott that they will back Crist if he proves their best chance?

Democrats were lukewarm to Crist at the DNC even after what should have been a huge applause line: “I didn’t leave the Republican Party; it left me.”

Part of his problem is he is viewed as a political opportunist, a view the Republican Party is happy to stoke.

There is only one possible political move for Charlie Crist. If he is serious about seeking another term as governor, he will have to run as a Democrat. Recent polls show he has a very good chance of becoming the Democratic nominee. But will the Democrats embrace him or will there be hard feelings?

Is Crist a man without a party or a political opportunist? Depends on whom you ask.

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