A Crist-Scott showdown? Here's how it might play out
Published: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 6:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 6:44 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Former Gov. Charlie Crist finished laying the groundwork for his political comeback, joining the Democratic Party this weekend and positioning himself to run against Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.
A potential Crist-Scott showdown would provide a political drama of the highest order in the nation's fourth-largest state. The matchup also presents plenty of risks and rewards for each side.
Crist was a lifelong Republican before he bolted his party in 2010 when it became apparent he could not beat Marco Rubio in a Republican U.S. Senate primary. Crist lost the election as an independent candidate.
Ever since Crist endorsed President Barack Obama shortly before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida Republicans have been relentless in reminding voters that Crist is making a 180-degree turn in his political career.
They highlighted his previous criticism of the president, including his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and his endorsement of Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. They say Crist is turning his back on his conservative principles.
Crist has said he left the GOP because the party had become too extreme. But his extensive Republican history will provide plenty of fodder for his opponents to try to undermine his credibility.
The bipartisan populist
Yet even while Crist was firmly in the Republican camp, he embraced causes that were not exactly orthodox for a GOP leader.
Within his first month as governor, Crist called lawmakers into a special session to pass measures aimed at limiting property insurance hikes — an issue that still resonates with many voters, particularly in the large coastal counties.
Crist has displayed a knack of positioning himself on both sides of an issue. He was a state senator who earned the sobriquet “Chain Gang Charlie” for advocating a return to roadside work gangs for prisoners.
Yet he was also a governor who pushed through reforms making it easier for felons to have their rights restored.
He also has a record as a pro-environment leader.
As a general election candidate, Crist could present plenty of problems for Scott by drawing moderate Republicans and independents to his side. And with Scott's popularity remaining low — with a significant group of GOP voters dissatisfied — it would be a plus for a Crist candidacy.
The primary problem
But could Crist — with his long GOP track record — win a Democratic primary if challenged? Would his opposition to abortion and his support for gun rights turn off the more liberal Democratic base, particularly if there are more traditional Democrats as options?
A number of Democrats are seriously considering the race, including former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, whom Scott narrowly beat in 2010. A handful of mayors have also been mentioned, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, whom Crist beat as a Republican in the 2002 race for attorney general.
Democratic Party leaders will have to calculate whether they can afford a hard-fought primary. They can't stop other candidates from entering the race, but the party apparatus can discourage such a move.
Although they haven't settled on a candidate, Democrats are united in the cause of trying to make Scott a one-term governor.
Scott, who is already raising a sizable campaign war chest, would benefit from a costly Democratic primary battle, much as Obama benefited from the drawn-out Republican presidential primary.
Crist's announcement that he was becoming a Democrat occurred while he was at the White House for a holiday reception with Obama — all part of a well-scripted plan to link the former governor with the president.
It was Crist's original man-hug of the president at a 2009 event in Florida that began Crist's downfall with the Republicans. Although he sharply criticized Obama while he was running as a Republican for the Senate, Crist moved firmly back into Obama's camp during this year's presidential race and was given a key speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention.
He also campaigned enthusiastically for Obama in Florida, a state that Obama carried for the second time in November.
Now Crist can expect some payback — either an open or tacit endorsement by Obama would go a long way in clearing the Democratic field for a Crist candidacy.
With a Democrat in the White House, Florida's Democratic candidate for governor — whether Crist or someone else — will get plenty of political and financial support from the national Democrats, who will make Scott's re-election another referendum for the parties.
Of course, Scott will be getting plenty of help from national Republicans, much as they rallied to the cause of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year.
As the candidate who promised 700,000 jobs in seven years, Scott has tied his political fate to Florida's economy. If the economy continues to improve over the next two years, Scott may be able to repair some of his sagging popularity numbers by November 2014.
The Republicans have already signaled that the economy will be one of their lines of attack against Crist. They will point to the job growth under the Scott administration, while slamming Crist over job losses that occurred while he was governor in the throes of the Great Recession.
Crist will have plenty of material to counter-attack the incumbent. One of the most potent would be the $1.3 billion cut in school funding in Scott's first year in office.
Crist has already established his bona fides with the politically influential teachers union by vetoing a bill — that Scott later signed — that created a controversial program linking teacher pay to student testing.
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