WASHINGTON — Thursday was independence day for Charlie Crist.
But the governor of Florida, now an ex-Republican, may not be feeling quite like setting off fireworks. Governor Crist has taken the gamble of a lifetime, quitting the party that nurtured his rise to the top of Florida politics — and to national prominence — in the hopes of revitalizing his campaign for the US Senate.
Polls showed he was headed for near-certain defeat in the Aug. 24 Republican primary against former state House speaker Marco Rubio. For now, at least, he can point to polling that shows he has a shot at winning the seat in a three-way race against Mr. Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek. A Quinnipiac poll taken in mid-April has Crist winning 32 percent of the vote, Rubio with 30 percent, and Congressman Meek with 24. Private polls have shown similar results.
In a three-way race, where someone can win with less than 35 percent of the vote, anything is possible. And in addition to giving Crist a new lease on his political life, the gambit also suddenly makes Meek viable – especially if the Democrats currently supporting Crist go “home” to their own party’s candidate.
A pollster’s doubts
Crist reveled in his bombshell (though well-telegraphed) announcement at Straub Park in St. Petersburg late Thursday afternoon.
“The easy thing for me would have been to run for reelection as governor, but for me, it’s never been about doing what’s easy,” Crist said. “I haven’t supported an idea because it’s a Republican idea or a Democratic idea. I support ideas because they are good ideas for the people.”
One veteran Florida-based pollster predicted that the excitement will die down quickly, and that before long, Crist won’t look as viable as he does today.
“He’s going to drop like a rock, probably within the next month,” says Brad Coker, managing director of the Mason-Dixon polling firm. “I think by Labor Day he’s a distant third, and not even part of the conversation anymore, except on how many votes he draws away from Rubio or Meek.”
In a private poll Mr. Coker conducted earlier this month looking at a potential three-way Senate race in Florida, the majority of Crist’s support was coming from Democrats. “That’s the problem,” says Coker, who is based in Jacksonville, Fla. “Democrats are going to melt away. Once Charlie starts to drop and they don’t think he can win, they’re all going to jump back to Meek.”
One immediate question for Crist is how he can raise enough money to be competitive. At the end of March, he had $7.5 million cash on hand, but Florida is an expensive media state, and he will need to raise a lot more. Analysts suggest he could pull in money from the Seminole Indian tribe and the gambling industry, following his approval of sweeping new betting rules. Teachers may also donate, after his veto of an unpopular education bill. And his finance chair, top GOP fundraiser Brent Sembler, is sticking by him.
In addition to fundraising questions, Crist also faces requests for refunds from unhappy Republicans, starting with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which wants its $10,000 back. The chairman of the committee, Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, told reporters Thursday at a Monitor breakfast that he too wanted a refund of the donation he made to Crist from his leadership PAC.