The Honorable Charles Crist has just informed key supporters that he will run for governor next year as a Democrat. A considerable number of voters, credulous types, believe that he will. Run for governor, that is. Nobody believes that his association with the Democratic party will survive even the slightest political inconvenience. Charlie Crist has by now transcended partisan attachments, wafting upward on a billowing cloud of self-enchantment.
Two questions engage the political class. First, will he actually run? There is little question that he would do so if he could waive any obligation to serve. Crist’s enthusiasm for campaigning, as also his disdain for governing, have been well documented. But Florida election law, which is notoriously loose-jointed in some respects, seems settled on the lapidary point: If you receive the most votes, you win. Like it or not, you’re elected.
If there are any loopholes in the governing text, Crist failed to find them three years ago when, as the antsy incumbent considered a shoo-in for re-election, he conducted an exhaustive search for escape routes from the governor’s mansion, settling ultimately on a plan to run for the U.S. Senate against the nominee of his own party. That plan produced the predictable harvest of discord, bitterness, humiliation, and defeat.
A political figure with less self-regard might have accepted that harsh electoral judgment and left well enough alone. Not the Honorable Charles Crist. While he might have been able to move on from policy defeat or administrative collapse or even the debris of natural disaster, this was a slight to personage, a nick in the well-buffed image. The bet here, accordingly, is that Charlie Crist, who turns 57 this week, will subject Floridians to still another campaign next year — his second race for governor, following races for attorney general, education commissioner, state senator (twice), and U.S. senator (twice). He’s Charlie Crist. He needs your vote.
The other question, of course, is: Can he win? The incumbent, Governor Rick Scott, says he can’t. When I ask him why he’s so confident, Scott, who is on message with metronomic reliability, says, “I will have $25 million in the bank by the end of the year and will use it in early 2014 to define my opponent.” Sounds like a plan. A war chest of that size will buy a lot of defining, even in an expensive media state like Florida.
Two of Scott’s likely Democratic opponents could in fact be devastated by an early media blast: Nan Rich, a relatively unknown state senator from south Florida, and Alex Sink, the former state chief financial officer, who gave Scott a close race in 2010. (For the record, I have my doubts about Ms. Sink’s candidacy. She lost her husband earlier this year, and she may or may not have the emotional fuel for a long campaign.) Rich and Sink could both be atomized if Scott goes negative next winter. But Charlie Crist? Just how is Scott going to define Charlie Crist, who is by a wide margin the best-known political figure in the state? Does even Rick Scott have enough money to define a man who over the course of a long career has refused to be defined?
Scott is too prudent to identify his opponent of choice, but people around him are spreading the word that they prefer Crist. Their thinking goes like this: Rick Scott has never won the affection of the Republican base, but it will turn out in droves to vote against the turncoat Crist. Put a big turnout together with a bombs-away media budget, an improving state economy, and a vintage GOP year, and — kaboom! — Scott wins big.
I’m not buying it. The polls are never dispositive, but, as always, they are suggestive. Last winter, Crist led Scott in head-to-heads by six points. This spring, it was ten points. Earlier this month, it was 14 points. Read those numbers however you will, spin them as passionately as you can, they still spell trouble for the incumbent. When the typical Floridian looks at Charlie Crist, the polls suggest, he doesn’t see a pandering, chameleonic political hack. He sees, more often than not, a nice-guy politician who is responsive to changing voter attitudes. Just as one man’s Mede is another man’s Persian, so to speak, one man’s flip-flopper can be another man’s dutiful public servant. Redundantly, Charlie Crist has changed his views on wedge issues — abortion, immigration, education, gay marriage, and lots of other things. But so have many Floridians. What’s not to like? asks the typical Florida voter.
What the polls suggest to me is that, implausibly, Charlie Crist will be a formidable candidate next year.
— Neal B. Freeman, a former NR editor and columnist, is a longtime contributor to National Review.