When Florida governor Charlie Crist announced in April that he would be leaving the GOP to run as an independent, comparisons to Joe Lieberman’s successful no-party bid were inevitable. Since then, the parallels have only sharpened as Crist has sought to fit the mold cast by the Senate’s last successful party defector.
Indeed, Connecticut residents watching TV in Florida would probably be hit with a nagging sense of déjà vu if they saw Charlie Crist’s current ad. Crist rearranges block letters from the names of the two major parties to spell out the word “Americans” and says, “How do we get results for Florida? By putting aside our differences and putting people ahead of politics.” A 2006 ad of Lieberman’s closed with him saying, “I’m Joe Lieberman, and I approve this message because it’s about people, not politics,” while erasing a line drawn on a chalkboard between the words “Democrats” and “Republicans.”
Other cues taken from Lieberman are more than just cosmetic. In June, Crist hired one of the architects of Lieberman’s campaign, consultant Josh Isay. Crist’s strategy of boxing out Democrat Kendrick Meek and framing the election as a two-horse race between him and Marco Rubio is reminiscent of Lieberman’s success among GOP voters. And, of course, Crist himself has cited Lieberman as inspiration.
But the fact remains: Crist is no Lieberman, and however hard he may try to walk in the Connecticut senator’s footsteps, stark differences between the two races suggest he will have difficulty following an independent path.
The most obvious difference is that Lieberman’s move to an independent ticket represented a reflection of his beliefs, not a change in them.
“With Lieberman it was organic. Eight months before he lost the Democratic nomination, the polling showed he had a home among Republicans, and, to a lesser extent, independents,” says Mark Pazniokas, who covered the race for the Hartford Courant. “He emphasized more after the primary his ability to work across party lines — that was more subtle. It wasn’t like he lost the primary and suddenly remade himself.”
In that way, Lieberman’s flight from the Democratic party almost made him seem more principled.
“It was a really unique feat of jujitsu, because Lieberman was able to claim — in a certain sense, steal — the outsider mantle and role in the race, even after being in Washington for eighteen years, because he had a record of standing apart from the partisanship and pettiness,” says Dan Gerstein, who was communications director for the 2006 campaign.
Meanwhile, Crist’s breaks with the party he used to represent have smacked of opportunism. His vetoes of a teacher merit-pay bill and a pre-abortion-ultrasound requirement immediately before and after he left the GOP conflict with the “Jeb Bush Republican” message he sold while running for governor. Rubio’s campaign has counted six different positions from Crist on health-care reform. Crist has also flip-flopped on gay adoption and described his shifting stance as an “appropriate evolution.” The Tampa Tribune summed up popular sentiment in one bold, front-page headline: “Crist racks up contradictions.”
Also, as he moves toward the center, Crist confronts the other huge difference between this race and Lieberman’s: the strength of the lagging third candidate, Democrat Kendrick Meek. In Connecticut, Republican Alan Schlesinger was perceived as damaged goods — a candidate who had used an alias to count cards in casinos and had been sued twice for gambling debts.
“The Republican party pretty much punted,” Pazniokas says. “The Bush White house gave its passing endorsement to Lieberman. So, you know, you could make the case that Lieberman became the de facto Republican nominee.”
Schlesinger ultimately took only 10 percent of the vote, with 70 percent of Republicans rallying behind Lieberman. Crist’s route to victory will similarly require Kendrick Meeks to run a distant third.