Crist's Woes in Florida: Can He Win as an Independent?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Florida Governor Charlie Crist and his wife Carole Rome Crist in North Miami on April 16, 2010

Florida Governor Charlie Crist has to decide by April 30 whether he wants to run as an independent for his state's open U.S. Senate seat this fall — an option he finally conceded this week he's considering. But Sunshine State political watchers say the Republican governor has already made up his mind to go indie — and they point not only to his decision last week to veto an education-reform bill that Florida's GOP leadership badly wanted him to sign, but to an ironic remark he made while wielding his pen.

In an admittedly political nod to Florida's powerful teachers' union, Crist called the measure, which would have eliminated tenure for public-school teachers and tied their pay to student test scores, "significantly flawed" because of onerous and vague criteria. But he then added that it was "sped through without meaningful input" from educators — and he likened the process to "jamming something down [people's] throats," just as Republicans, he added, accused Democrats of doing with health care reform.

Crist's veto infuriated GOP honchos, including his conservative predecessor, Jeb Bush, who had championed the bill as an extension of the school-accountability crusade he began a decade ago. But Crist's comments, say pundits, were meant as a cold mug of Earl Grey in the face of the conservative Tea Party movement that has done so much to scuttle his once powerful GOP Senate primary run — a campaign that National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Jesmer said, in a Monday memo, Crist should now give up. More important, pundits say, Crist was signaling his likely strategy as an independent: co-opt the Tea Party's language of frustration with America's tone-deaf and ineffectual political culture, but aim it at Republicans and Democrats alike.

Crist "was definitely telegraphing how he'll run as an independent," says Aubrey Jewett, a political analyst at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Jewett notes that Crist did it again this week in a speech at his old high school in St. Petersburg. Crist said he initially supported the education bill's quest for stronger teacher evaluation — which Florida could admittedly use more of, especially since that was a big reason it lost out last month in its bid for a $1 billion federal Race to the Top education grant. But he said its drafters became as "ideologically greedy" to punish public education as liberals so often are to pamper it. As a result, "as an independent he'll emphasize that he's taking on the two-party system," says Florida GOP political consultant Cory Tilley, a former Jeb Bush spokesman. "That could be a very effective message for him."

It has been in the past for Crist, whose less partisan style scored him some of the highest approval ratings ever for a Florida governor until the recession came crashing down on the state last year. Florida's GOP base has all but abandoned him now — an April 15 Quinnipiac University poll shows him trailing his conservative Republican primary opponent, former state house speaker Marco Rubio, by 23 points — and Jesmer in his memo said he believes there's "zero chance" that Crist will continue his primary bid. But independents still make up a whopping fifth of the peninsula's almost 12 million voters, a big reason the Quinnipiac survey forecasts an independent Crist narrowly beating Rubio, 32% to 30%, in a three-way contest with the likely Democratic candidate, Congressman Kendrick Meek (24%).

Going independent at this point probably makes the most sense not just for Crist's political survival but, ironically, for the viability of his more center-right Republicanism. The Aug. 24 primary was widely billed as a fight between moderates and conservatives for the GOP's soul after its disastrous 2006 and 2008 losses. The conservative movement that erupted last summer, in angry response to Washington's perceived profligacy and overreach, targeted Crist for his effusive backing of President Obama's $780 billion economic stimulus plan — and the image of the governor hugging Obama at an event last year is a Rubio campaign staple (even though Rubio has admitted that had he been governor, he too would have taken the stimulus money for Florida). But should Crist win in November as an independent, it might help remind his party that its hard-right turns usually drive it away from voters as badly as Democrats' hard-left swings do.

Either way, GOP leaders are noticeably nervous about Crist's possible independent run and, in memos like Jesmer's, are begging him to drop out of the Senate race altogether. They're also spooked by a growing financial scandal involving a number of top Florida Republicans in recent months over the misuse of party funds — which the Miami Herald reports is now the subject of a federal probe. Rubio has run a smart campaign positioning himself as the new conservative dragon slayer, and he doubled his coffers by raising $3.6 million in this year's first quarter. (Crist has more than $10 million, but saw his fundraising plunge to $1.1 million last quarter.) But Rubio himself has been implicated in the money mess after recent newspaper investigations showed that while a state legislator and speaker he made thousands of dollars in personal purchases with a GOP-issued American Express card (he insists he has paid it all back) and that he failed to disclose $34,000 in expenses by one of his political-action committees while his wife and relatives got questionable fees from those PACs.

Not that Crist would look pristine if he bolts his party in November. Such a move, in fact, would bolster the oft-heard criticism that he blows with the political wind — including Obama's spectacular but ephemeral popularity last year — like an egret gliding over the Everglades. His political future could flatline if he gambled a run as an independent and lost (or worse yet, in the process helped a Democrat eke out victory). But even if he were to win as an independent next fall, it's doubtful he could remain such for the long haul. Would Republicans let him caucus with them in the Senate, for example, or shut him out as a traitor?

That, says Jewett, depends on how well the party does in November. Republicans "would be ticked off at him, just as Democrats were at [Connecticut Senator] Joe Lieberman" after he won re-election as an independent in 2006, Jewett says. "But they work with him, because Congress is still a numbers game at the end of the day." In this particular race for Congress, it's more like a roll of the dice for Crist and the moderates he represents. But it's one he looks likely to make.

With reporting by Catharine Skipp / Miami