Robin Lumb: Why Charlie Can’t Win as an Independent
When Charlie Crist vetoed the legislation, I put those columns aside and began to write about the rampant speculation that Crist would use the veto to position himself to run for the Senate as an independent. Although I strongly suspected Crist would bolt the Republican Party, there were enough good arguments against it to warrant a will-he-or-won’t-he analysis.
Work on that column – which lasted for about a day and a half – came to a halt when even a casual reading of the tea leaves revealed that Crist had no intention of honoring his pledge to remain in the Republican primary.
I still plan to write about education reform, but now that Charlie Crist has officially declared himself an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate (and in the process proved that he has no loyalty to any cause larger than his ego), wouldn’t it be more instructive to concentrate on the one question worth asking: Can Charlie Crist win as an independent?
In a word: No.
1. The polls are not encouraging. Media spin notwithstanding, recent polling on a hypothetical three-way race for the US Senate isn’t very encouraging for Governor Crist. A Rasmussen poll of likely voters released last week had Rubio at 37%, Crist at 30% and Kendrick Meek at 22%. An earlier Quinnipiac poll, taken just after the veto, showed Crist slightly ahead at 32% with Rubio and Kendrick Meek at 30% and 24% respectively. That result was well within the margin of error and given the dynamics of a live-fire campaign, probably will be Charlie’s high water mark.
2. Charlie Crist will become the poster child for everything that’s reprehensible about politicians. When Senate Bill 6 was working its way through the legislature Crist had committed himself to signing. Then he started to have second thoughts. To hear the Governor tell it, it was because he’d spent the week leading up to the veto “listening to the people”. When he finally vetoed the bill, Crist assured reporters that “it [had] nothing to do with politics; it [was] all about the children of Florida.” We’re supposed to believe the most calculating politician to come out of Florida in a generation never once thought about the political consequences of such a move? Right.
3. Charlie Crist will be indelibly tagged as the greatest flip-flopper in Florida history. In his Fox News interview on March 28th with Chris Wallace, Crist was asked straight up if would even consider running as an Independent. His answer? “I’m running as a Republican.” Throughout the legislative session the Crist campaign was assuring anyone who would listen that Charlie was fully committed to running as a Republican in the Republican Party. Oops!
4. The (Jeb) Bush factor. With Rubio in the lead in a Republican primary and for the sake of party unity, it was likely the former Governor would have remained on the sidelines until after the Primary Election. But with Crist running as an independent the still popular Bush has the perfect opening to wade in and give his full throated support to Marco Rubio. Those who underestimate the importance of Jeb Bush in Florida politics do so at their own peril: Despite one of the most negative, fractious and expensive special election campaigns in recent memory, John Thrasher broke through the pack and won election to the Florida Senate largely on the strength of a Jeb Bush endorsement.
5. Rubio will make a credible claim that Crist will vote with President Obama and the Democrats. Because Republicans are unlikely to win back the Senate in 2010 and because Charlie won’t be able to indulge his ambitions by serving in the minority, it’s only logical that Crist will vote to organize with the Democrats and bargain his support in return for a committee chairmanship or some other plum. The only way Crist could blunt this attack is by assuring voters that he would vote to organize with the Republicans. But who would believe him? The surest way for Rubio to carve out a victory is to tie Crist to an increasingly unpopular President and to make the Rubio-Crist portion of the contest a referendum on Mr. Obama.
6. Charlie Crist will become Kendrick Meek’s number one target. With the Governor running as an independent, Kendrick Meek will immediately shift the focus of his campaign to a sustained attack on Charlie Crist. Think about it: If the race could be won with as little as 34% or 35% of the vote, where does Meek go in search of his margin of victory? He certainly doesn’t try to peel away Rubio supporters; he goes after Charlie Crist instead! If Meek runs to the center while painting Charlie as the candidate no voter can trust, he ends up poaching votes from a hapless Crist.
7. With Charlie Crist running as an independent, Rubio can run to the center. The only reason some Republicans and moderates would consider voting for Crist is if they saw Rubio as out of the mainstream. But with the Republican nomination all but locked up, Rubio can concentrate on the kitchen table issues that concern most voters: Jobs, the deficit and long term economic security. While still touting himself as the “true conservative in the race”, Marco can craft a message of common sense conservatism that should appeal to any voter concerned with the overreaching agenda of the Democrat Party.
8. The Republican Party – at both the state and national level – will come down on Crist like a ton of bricks. Already the embodiment of RINO (Republican-In-Name-Only) Republicanism, Charlie has now made himself a pariah. He’ll be repudiated by every Republican in elective office and shunned by almost every political ally he ever had. Endorsements for Rubio will flood in and as Crist ratchets up his attacks, anti-Crist sentiment will only intensify. The sin qua non of party politics, win or lose, is loyalty to the party and its nominees. Charlie Crist is about to discover that the world of politics is a different place when you violate this basic tenet.
9. Charlie Crist will be running without the benefit of a grassroots organization. It’s nice to have lots of money, but in politics there’s no substitute for boots on the ground when it comes to boosting voter turnout. In a tight race, a well organized get-out-the-the-vote effort can provide the margin of victory by padding a candidate’s vote total by as much as 3% or 4%. The advantage political parties have is that they’re organized down to the precinct level and have large numbers of volunteers they can draw on. By bailing on the Republican Party, Crist loses any hope for a decent ground game and in a close election that places him at a major disadvantage.
10. Any Republican or conservative who votes for Crist will have to perform a series of mental gymnastics that are almost too painful to contemplate. The right to vote one’s conscience is sacrosanct and there are as many reasons for how we vote as there are voters. Believing that he was a genuine and thoughtful conservative, I voted for Charlie Crist in both the Primary and General Election in 2006. Plenty of other voters – Republicans, Independents and more than a few Democrats – voted the same way. But in a political environment where integrity and principled leadership are at a premium, it’s hard to imagine how Charlie Crist can ever make that sale again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
In Florida, as in much of the country, the battle for votes is in the middle. Hard core Republicans, about 30% of likely voters, and hard core Democrats, another 30%, will support their party’s nominee no matter what. This means the winning margin for Crist has to come from somewhere inside the same block of swing votes that gave Barrack Obama his winning margin in 2008.
But the independent voters who’ve become disillusioned with Obama and who abandoned the Democrat party in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts are those least likely to view an independent run by Crist as anything more than political opportunism.
Running as an independent, Charlie Crist will only reinforce the widespread cynicism that underlies voter dissatisfaction. In an election cycle where an angry electorate is motivated largely by distrust, what could be worse than a politician who abandons his party – after clearly forswearing this possibility – for the purpose of gaining a political advantage?
No matter how he spins its, Crist will have a hard time explaining why he felt comfortable running and winning as a Republican for over twenty years only to bug out when the tide turned against him.
If you want to know what the campaign narrative will sound like, here it is:
Marco Rubio: If you send Charlie Crist to Washington he’ll vote with the Barrack Obama and the Democrats.
Charlie Crist: No, I won’t.
Marco Rubio: How can you believe a man who deliberately misled Florida voters? How can you trust someone who turned his back on his own party?
Charlie Crist doesn’t win in that exchange. Marco Rubio does.