Jacksonville, Fla. – In his mad, careerist dash through Florida politics, Charlie Crist has always listened to an urgent voice calling him to high purpose and vast design. While that voice has never been audible to those nearby, he has been quick to amplify it for the hearing-impaired. Usually, he has confided, it is “the people of Florida” who, with their basic goodness and plain-spoken common sense, are urging him to do the right thing — which, happily, seems always to coincide with his own momentary whim. Occasionally, it is “our children,” or, when working a backwoods locale, “the kids,” for whom he feels obliged to sacrifice his current, much-loved job in quest of the next. More recently, across the Bible Belt, he has taken to pausing portentously mid-speech before reminding the devout that his very name, in its original Greek form, means “disciple of Christ.” Yea, verily, it must have been His will that Crist desert the Republican party and seek salvation in the green uplands of independence.
This afternoon in St. Petersburg, 40 minutes late to his own party, Charlie Crist announced that he is leaving the GOP, the party that had handed him a state Senate seat, anointed him attorney general, and then elected him governor. He is turning his back on the party, he explained, because . . . because . . . well, he never quite explained, did he? The dispositive answer to why he defected, to those who watch him closely, is that he saw no better alternative for the people of Florida or the kids — or indeed, but quite incidentally, for himself — than to pursue a campaign as an outsider, appalled by what’s been happening in Tallahassee lately. Let’s check off the list. Marco Rubio was pulling away in the Senate primary. Kendrick Meek, the presumptive Democratic candidate, did not blink. The Obama people preferred to let Crist stew in his own juice. The university offer would have to wait until December, as would the several law-firm deals. So let’s be reasonable here. What did we expect Charlie Crist to do for the next eight months? Sit around all day being governor?
The proximate question is what effect his decision will have on the Senate race. The answer, from the Republican perspective, is nothing good. Charlie Crist has assembled over the past few years an odd coalition, including, as principal building blocks, the party base, tort lawyers, and gun owners. The party base is now gone. They liked Rubio better from the jump, and they are now in a white-hot rage at the lover who left them. (One of Crist’s campaign tropes is to startle casual supporters by telling them he “loves” them.)
The tort lawyers seem to be sticking. Crist made a devil’s deal with the tort bar back when he was attorney general, and he reconsummated the relationship as recently as this week by signing a “tort-reform bill” that will have the intended consequence of raising awards to tort lawyers. Crist already has $7.6 million (as of March 31) in his campaign account — more than Rubio and Meek put together, and not required by law to be returned — and the tort lawyers will provide whatever else Crist needs. Money should not be a problem. Then there are the gun owners, a critical constituency in this huntin’ and home-protectin’ state. The NRA and other gun groups have been solid for Crist for several cycles and, while they are now under intense pressure to back away, they have an otherwise admirable record of sticking with their friends when the going gets tough. Well, the going just got tough. Watch that space.
The key to Crist’s possible success will be whether he can somehow replicate the party base, with its filigree of county committees, volunteer platoons, and turnout machinery. In some parts of the state, conspicuously including the Tallahassee-Jacksonville corridor, the GOP organization is formidable, even intimidatingly so. Crist’s bet seems to be that he can replace the party apparatus with a statewide effort by his new best friends, the teachers’ unions. (Crist’s veto of the GOP’s merit-pay bill two weeks ago was widely seen as the presentation of a gaudy political engagement ring.) The unions have lots of members and lots of money and a visible presence in every county. They are particularly potent in the southern part of the state, where Republicans have traditionally been stretched thin. So, while it’s possible that the unions could put together a sturdy campaign structure, there’s a problem. Just as the NRA will get pressure from its right to move away from Crist, the teachers’ unions will encounter pushback from the Democrats if they edge toward Crist. Watch that space, too.
The bottom line on the election is that, despite polls showing him highly competitive in a three-way race, we’re not likely to be greeting a new Senator Crist (Me, Fla.) this November. The historical record is reassuring on this point. The last third-party winner in Florida was “the Cracker Messiah,” Sidney Catts, elected governor on an anti-booze platform in 1916. (The electorate soon recovered its senses.) More recent history argues a similar conclusion. Florida’s only other widely popular political figure, former governor Jeb Bush, is now all in for Rubio after observing a decorous distance from the Senate campaign for the past year. Crist’s repudiation of the GOP is a repudiation of his predecessor as well, and Bush is reliably reported to be ready to rumble. So, while it’s self-evidently true that “things change,” as Crist explains his bizarre wanderings, his independent campaign looks like a loser. It may even have peaked today. But can he damage Rubio’s chances and improve Meek’s? Absolutely.
What we know for sure is that, when it comes to Charlie Crist, it’s never over even when it’s over. If Charlie slips to a deep third place over the next few months, you can bet that he’ll be hearing those voices again.
– Neal B. Freeman, a National Review contributor, covers politics from Jacksonville.