Crist Switcheroo: Likely Less Than Meets the Eye

by Stuart Rothenberg April 30, 2010 · 9:00 AM EDT

Now that multiple reports indicate that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has decided to drop his GOP Senate candidacy and run for the state’s open Senate seat as an Independent, we are in for saturation coverage about what it means for the race, for the Republican Party and for Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic Senate nominee.

While the carnival atmosphere produced by the development is understandable and at least partly justified — it’s not often a sitting governor can’t win his party’s Senate nomination and drops out of a primary hours before the filing deadline to run as an Independent — the ramifications of the decision probably are less than you think.

Even before Crist’s decision, former state Speaker Marco Rubio (R) has been the favorite to win the Senate race in November. He is still the favorite to win. That hasn’t changed. But Crist’s decision raises plenty of questions in the long term.

From the Democratic point of view, anything that shakes up the race probably is good.

Meek hasn’t been a factor in two-way trial heats, so a three-way race obviously gives him a more reasonable narrative. He won’t need 50 percent to win, a number that seems simply unattainable. But if he can win with 35 percent of the vote, he cannot be dismissed so easily.

Meek now has another candidate, Crist, who has a strong incentive to go after soft Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, and if the governor is successful in that effort, it leaves Meek with only a part of the Democratic base.

Indeed, if Rubio leads in mid-September polling and Meek trails Crist in those three-way trial heats, the Congressman will have to start worrying about substantial defections to Crist, and even about Crist becoming the de-facto Democratic candidate, much as Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID) became the de facto Republican candidate in Connecticut in 2006.

So, while Crist’s Independent Senate bid has to be generating a sense of hope among some Democrats, it’s not clear that his decision to run as an Independent has dramatically improved Meek’s prospects.

As I noted in an earlier column on the race (Should Charlie Crist Roll the Dice to Save Long-Shot Senate Bid?), Crist’s prospects as an Independent go from nonexistent — since he was the certain loser of the Republican primary — to mediocre in a three-way race.

Any way you slice it, that’s an improvement for Crist, who will suddenly have a new narrative in the race.

As an Independent, he’ll surely argue that he’s above partisan politics and a commonsense problem-solver who is more concerned about moving Florida forward than engaging in petty partisan fights.

And as governor, he will get plenty of media attention, and he’ll be able to use issues of the day (such as the oil spill in the Gulf) to position himself as a fighter for the average Floridian.

But one political veteran who has been following the race and public sentiment about Crist extremely closely doubts that Sunshine State voters are going to embrace Crist or his message.

“People are done with him. It’s that simple. Florida voters are never going to believe that Charlie Crist has strong beliefs about anything, that he is a stand-up guy,” the observer said.

Crist is likely to lose most of his GOP support after promising repeatedly that he would stay in the Republican race but is now announcing he will run as an Independent. That flip-flop, combined with his recent veto of a Republican education bill (to say nothing of his support of President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill), is likely to leave him without the Republican support that he would need to thread the needle in a three-way contest.

Knowledgeable political observers dismiss the idea that Crist can repeat Lieberman’s victory, noting that partisanship is a much stronger factor in Florida.

This race “bears no resemblance” to what happened in Connecticut, one insider with proven political instincts said.

Observers agree that the situation is, of course, extremely fluid now and that it is wise to wait to see how Crist handles question about who he would caucus with in Washington, D.C., if elected, whether he will return campaign contributions from Republican donors who want their money back, and who will run his campaign if, as expected, he loses many or all of his consultants.

And some Florida insiders still believe that Rubio could make a serious mistake — or be derailed by legal issues and investigations — thereby giving the other candidates, and particularly Crist, a chance to alter the trajectory of the race.

Until Crist announces his intentions, of course, his plans remain uncertain, even with reports circulating that he has decided to run as an Independent. As one observer noted wryly, “Gov. Crist has been known to change his mind on core beliefs.”