Crist has every reason to reconsider, because in his Senate run, he’s fallen and he can’t get up. He trails Marco Rubio by 20 to 30 points, and none of his attacks are getting traction. Conservative voters have bonded with Rubio as a matter of principle; flimsy personal attacks on him won’t change that. It’s increasingly clear that Crist faces defeat in the Republican primary in August, probably by a large and humiliating margin.
And so, a run as an independent beckons. In the same recent Quinnipiac poll that had Crist down by 23 points to Rubio in the primary, Crist running as an independent narrowly led a three-way race in the general election. This looks like the only path for Crist from Tallahassee to Washington this year. But it, too, is likely to be a dead end. Here are five reasons why:
1) Reinforcing the negative. The biggest rap against Crist is that he’s a soulless politician: He has no moorings and will bend in whatever direction suits his purposes. Crist infamously endorsed the stimulus at a February 2009 event with President Obama — and then, almost as infamously, tried to deny it in November when it was weighing him down in the GOP race. Switching parties because he fears losing a primary, a primary he said he was committed to seeing through to the end, would only make Crist’s chief vulnerability worse. No one — conservative, liberal, or in between — likes an opportunist, and Crist would have established himself as one beyond any argument. He’d be Arlen Specter, except without a party.
2) A Republican meltdown. Crist’s standing in the Republican party would collapse. Everyone has long known that Jeb Bush, Crist’s predecessor as governor, basically backs Rubio. While Bush’s feelings about Crist became a little more public after the Crist’s veto of the big education-reform bill on Thursday, Bush has still held off issuing a public endorsement. If Crist quit the party, though, Bush would no longer hold back. Neither would the rest of the Republican establishment. Crist turns in a relatively strong showing as an independent in the Quinnipiac poll right now because he still gets 30 percent of Republicans. That number would begin to diminish immediately once he broke with the GOP.
3) A fundraising drought. Crist entered the Senate race a presumed fundraising behemoth. No more. Rubio outraised Crist last quarter, $3.6 million to $1.1 million. Crist would have trouble raising even that much as an independent. He’d still get some business money — the privilege of being a governor — but his Republican sources would dry up. The theory that he can turn to the teachers’ union, which was pleased by his veto of the education bill, seems far-fetched. Crist has millions in cash-on-hand, but going forward he’d be a man without a country as a fundraiser.
4) Cries of betrayal. If he makes the switch, some big GOP donors might ask for their money back. Even if Crist has no obligation to return it, it will be bad optics if he doesn’t.
5) The downward spiral. Usually, the best day an independent candidate has is the day he announces. Presumably, the same will be true of Crist. As Crist loses Republicans, as discussed above, he’ll dip in the polls. As soon as he’s beneath Rubio and the Democrat Kendrick Meek, he begins to look like a spoiler and more people leave him. Then he begins to look like a real waste of a vote, and even more people leave him, and so it goes. Not all independent candidates experience this inexorable downward trajectory, but most do. Even if Crist has a powerful platform in the governorship, does he have the kind of bold persona or policy platform to avoid this spiral? It seems doubtful.
Even if Crist manages to hold up relatively well, the math is still against him. Democratic strategist Steve Schale writes:
Assuming the electorate on Election Day is 42% Democratic, 40% Republican and 18% Independent (Dems currently have a 7% advantage, so a 2 point advantage on election day is a fairly conservative estimate), even if Crist got 25% of the Republican and Democratic vote, and a whopping 60% of Independents (with Meek/Rubio splitting the rest), he would only get to 31%, several points short of a win number.
What to do? I’m obviously biased as a Rubio supporter, but I’m guessing this is a case where the honorable thing is also the best political play. Crist should acknowledge the inevitable in the Senate race and bow out, endorsing Rubio without hesitation. Then, he lives to fight another day. He can wait for the mood of the electorate to change — and hope he never runs up against a natural star like Rubio again.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.