Why party-swapping Charlie Crist could be Florida's next governor

A new poll shows ex-GOP Governor Crist – now a Democrat – would crush the deeply unpopular Republican incumbent, Rick Scott, in 2014. For now, at least, Crist's political shape-shifting is an asset.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist delivers a statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 2012.

Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor of South Carolina, appears on track to win back his old House seat after coming in first in Tuesday’s GOP primary. Next up, Charlie Crist?

If early polling is any guide, former Republican Governor Crist of Florida – now a Democrat – is also on the political comeback trail.

Mr. Crist would beat Gov. Rick Scott (R) handily, 50 percent to 34 percent among registered Florida voters, if the 2014 election were held today, according to a poll out Wednesday by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

The poll demonstrates as much the unpopularity of Governor Scott as it does the appeal of potential opponents. The Democrat who barely lost to Scott in 2010 – Alex Sink, Florida’s former chief financial officer – also beats Scott in a hypothetical matchup, 45 percent to 34 percent.

Only 32 percent of Florida voters say Scott – a former health industry executive elected in 2010 on a wave of tea party support – deserves to be reelected. Among independents, that number is worse, at 28 percent.

Why is Scott so unpopular?

“Most important is the fact that he won by the narrowest margin in Florida political history,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “So he entered office with the state divided on him.”

In addition, Florida has taken a long time to pull out of high unemployment and a high foreclosure rate. And Scott, who came to office with no political experience, doesn’t exactly project warmth.  

“He is, to put it bluntly, extremely ineffective on TV,” says Ms. MacManus.

Enter – or reenter – Crist, a master glad-hander. In 2008, as a first-term governor, he was seen as a veep contender. But in early 2009, he helped seal his fate as a Republican by giving President Obama a big hug on a visit to Florida to tout his economic stimulus plan. When Crist ran for Senate in 2010, he was overtaken by the tea party-fueled Marco Rubio juggernaut. He quit the Republican Party to run as an independent, and lost in the general.

Crist appeared finished in politics. His face began appearing on billboards across Florida advertising a personal injury law firm.

But last year, he tiptoed back into politics. He endorsed President Obama for reelection and addressed the Democratic National Convention. In December, he announced he’s a Democrat.

Crist’s political shape-shifting would be an obvious line of attack if he runs, but the Quinnipiac poll suggests that may not work: 50 percent of Florida voters say his switch to the Democratic Party is a positive that shows he’s a pragmatist, versus 40 percent who say it’s a negative that shows he lacks core beliefs.

“The fact that voters think it’s an asset that former Gov. Charlie Crist moved from conservative Republican to a Democrat with very different political views will be a key metric to watch between now and the 2014 voting,” says Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

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