What Charlie Crist's indie bid says about GOP – and Crist himself

Gov. Charlie Crist suddenly appears competitive as a political independent in his Senate race. Was his departure from the GOP a sign of turmoil in the party, or are there other factors at play?

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/ AP
Gov. Charlie Crist, left, greets a supporter after he announced he will run as an independent candidate in his bid for the U.S. Senate during a rally in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. on Thursday, April 29.

It’s tempting to see the story of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s departure from the Republican Party as a sign of the times – that the GOP tent is shrinking as the conservative tea-party wing gains momentum.

And certainly, there’s evidence to support that argument: Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona suddenly denies he’s a maverick and backs away from his advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform in the face of a primary challenge from the right. A year ago, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter switched from R to D when it became clear that his right-wing Republican primary challenger could beat him. Last fall, moderate Republican New York state legislator Dede Scozzafava ended up quitting her congressional race altogether, after the tea-party movement shunned her and rallied around the third-party Conservative candidate.

But there are also signs that the next Senate could wind up with more moderate Republicans than are in the current Senate. Rep. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois has an excellent shot at winning President Obama’s old seat. Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware is strongly favored to win Vice President Biden’s old seat. Newly minted Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts, who captured the late Edward Kennedy’s seat, has emerged as a classic Northeastern Rockefeller Republican.

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So in some instances, at least, the GOP appears to have learned the lesson that it can be smart to recruit candidates with broad appeal, even when they are less than pure ideologically.

All this leads back to the question of Governor Crist, who now suddenly appears competitive as a political independent in his Senate race. Was his departure from the GOP a sign of turmoil in the party, or are there other factors at play?

“I think it’s more about Crist, and it’s more about the anti-incumbent mood at the moment, which is pervasive,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, Tampa.

To be sure, Crist’s ideological flexibility, once considered an asset, hurt him with the energetic tea partyers, who adopted his conservative challenger, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R), as their favorite son in this election cycle. But there are plenty of conservatives in trouble within their own party in other states, starting with Sen. Robert Bennett (R) of Utah and Trey Grayson, Kentucky Senate candidate and current state secretary of state. Both of them are seen as “establishment” candidates. That's usually not a problem in a primary, but it's a big problem for some this cycle.

The bottom line for Crist is that he’s still relatively popular as governor – thus, his desire to take his Senate bid “straight to November,” as he put it on NBC’s “Today” show Friday. By the candidate filing deadline Friday, repositioning himself as an independent seemed to be the only logical move, if he were to stay in the race.

“He’ll receive support among independent voters and moderate Democrats,” said Justin Sayfie, ex-aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush (R), in an interview with Politico. “That’s his strength.”

Adding another layer of drama to the Florida political scene, Democratic front-runner Rep. Kendrick Meek got a new primary challenger Friday, as billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene jumped into the race. Mr. Greene is by many accounts a colorful character; boxer Mike Tyson was reportedly best man at his recent wedding. But anyone with a billion dollars and an open checkbook can cause trouble in a campaign, and some Democrats are worried what the new challenger means for Representative Meek, whose campaign has been weak so far.

In short, the past two days have scrambled the political scene in Florida.

“Florida politics is like unjelled jello,” Ms. MacManus says.

Nevertheless, it’s now the state to watch in the 2010 midterms. And in a state that remembers well the turmoil of the too-close-to-call presidential election of 2000, MacManus adds, “Florida is the gift that keeps on giving.”


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