Fla. gov dumps GOP, runs for Senate as independent
By BRENDAN FARRINGTON,Associated Press Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Former GOP darling Gov. Charlie Crist defected from the Republican Party on Thursday to run as an independent for U.S. Senate after months of being ripped by conservatives as too supportive of President Barack Obama.
“I don’t have either party helping me. But I need you. I need you more than ever,” the governor said, surrounded by cheering supporters carrying signs that included “Democrats for Crist.”
Crist was the heavy favorite last year, and was even among the Republican names bandied about in the 2012 presidential race. But the primary campaign quickly became a lost cause as the tea party movement embraced another candidate, Marco Rubio, and held up the governor’s literal embrace of Obama last year as evidence that Crist was too liberal.
Crist was mobbed by supporters after the speech. One man shouted, “I love you!” and Crist replied, “I love you more, brother.”
He said he felt liberated. Asked why, he said, “Because I only belong to the people and that’s a wonderful place to be. That’s what it’s all about.”
The charismatic governor has long been popular in Florida, but his chances of winning as an independent appear slim. He’s burned bridges with Republicans, and Democrats see his announcement as an opportunity for their own likely nominee, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. The Senate has two independents — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — but neither had to fend off serious contenders from both parties in a general election.
Crist’s outlook in the primary campaign, however, seemed even bleaker. One recent poll showed him more than 20 percentage points behind Rubio in the August primary, but Crist had a tiny lead when voters were asked who they would pick in a three-way race with Rubio and Meek.
“The odds are like a million percent better than if he were running as a Republican,” said Brett Doster, a Republican political operative who managed Tom Gallagher’s gubernatorial campaign against Crist in 2006.
Moderate Republican Senate candidates in several other states, including Arizona, Utah, Kentucky and New Hampshire, are facing strong challenges from conservatives supported by the tea party movement that sprung up in opposition to Obama’s policies.
Crist claimed the middle ground during his short announcement in his hometown of St. Petersburg, saying politics had become too divisive.
The election, he said, is “not one club’s decision or another club’s decision, or one club within that club. … We give you the chance to make that decision.”
The governor said he will change his voter registration from Republican to “no party affiliation.” He did not say when he will do that, but he will give up his Republican affiliation as governor when he does.
Leaving the Republicans means it will be tougher for Crist to raise money and he’ll lose nearly all his campaign staff; his polling firm announced it was resigning from the campaign team soon after his announcement. His communications director did the same and his campaign manager will resign in a week.
Crist also won’t have the advantage of a party infrastructure for resources like voter lists and volunteers. And the party that helped propel him to power will now do anything to defeat him.
“To be sure, he left this party. This party did not leave him,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement.
Just a year ago, it seemed Crist was the man to beat for the GOP nomination to run for the Senate seat Republican Mel Martinez was leaving early. But he has seen his poll numbers nose-dive as conservatives switched their support to Rubio, many driven away in part by Crist’s support for Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. Rubio has frequently reminded voters that Crist hugged the president at a Florida appearance to support the bill.
Rubio grinned widely at a campaign stop in Coral Gables on Thursday when asked about Crist.
“When I got in this race I knew I was running against people that supported the Obama agenda,” he said. “I just didn’t realize I would have to run against both of them at the same time.”
Other Republicans were making it clear that if Crist abandons the party, they will abandon him — for good.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Crist’s future political aspirations would be “irreparably damaged” by an independent run. The committee had backed Crist but reversed itself and backed Rubio on Thursday.
Cornyn said he will ask Crist’s campaign to return the $10,000 he donated when he recruited the governor to run for the Senate in 2009. He expects other GOP donors to do the same. Crist is not required to return the money.
The governor has spent the past several years working closely with Democrats and embracing other causes not popular among conservatives.
Just two weeks ago, he alienated many powerful Republican and business interests by vetoing a measure that would have made it easier to fire teachers and linked their pay to student test scores. At the same time, he scored points with the influential teachers union and other traditionally Democratic constituents who won’t have a say in the GOP primary. Many of those teachers attended his rally Thursday.
Hours before his announcement, Crist was talking about Obama, saying he spoke with him about a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that could threaten Florida coastline.
“He went ahead and volunteered any assistance the federal government can do,” Crist said.
Meek predicted Crist’s independent candidacy will be good news for him.
“I feel that I’m running against two Republicans,” he said. “There’s very little difference between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist. They both agree on a number of issues and people are sick and tired of politicians flipping and flopping and changing with the wind.”
But registered Democrat Askia Aquil, 63, attended Crist’s rally and said he likes that the governor was willing to step out of the mold.
“I think our state, and in fact, our country are far too large and far too diverse for interest groups to try to squeeze everybody into these two polar positions, these two parties,” said Aquil, who voted for Crist for governor in 2006. “That’s why there’s so much gridlock.”
Crist had $7 million in his campaign account at the end of last month and doesn’t need to spend it introducing himself to voters because he is so well-known. Rubio had about half that amount, but his fundraising has increased tremendously and he can now ask Crist supporters for help.
David Johnson, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist, said it’s uncertain who will benefit from the three-way race: “It’s like trying to predict the winner of the World Series right now based on the first month of the season.”
Associated Press Writers Tamara Lush in Florida and Liz Sidoti in Washington contributed to this report.