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Nancy Smith

No. 2: Charlie Crist, Who Gave Florida Rick Scott

March 29, 2015 - 6:00pm

In the last five years nobody did more to change the course of Florida history than Gov. Charlie Crist.

In May 2009 -- in a single moment -- Crist twisted Florida's fate squarely to the right when he announced he would forgo a second term in the governor's office and instead run for U.S. senator.

That decision came a clear nine months before Sunshine State News arrived in Tallahassee. But most of the dominoes in state government and in Crist's personal life fell in 2010, just as SSN began.

Many political observers maintain that Crist could easily have won another term as governor and didnt need to take such a risk to maintain power in the state.But thats just not Charlie Crist. He had never run for re-election to a statewide office, always looking to go bigger and better as soon as possible. Crist got a taste of Washington, for a period a vice presidential contender on the 2008 ticket with John McCain.

But consider for a moment what might have been had Crist -- by his own estimation and in his own words "the most popular governor in America" -- stayed put and run for a second term in 2010.

Most political observers believe Attorney General Bill McCollum would have run for the U.S. Senate; Alex Sink would have pursued a second term as chief financial officer. And Marco Rubio's career probably wouldn't have shot into orbit quite as quickly as it did.

Most of all, Rick Scott today would be Rick Who? -- just another Naples waterfront millionaire, because Crist was right -- he was a popular governor. He would have galloped to re-election without a primary and by double digits in the general election.

Crist's White House aspirations might be alive and well today, too. He would still be a Republican, still be sitting pretty for a senatorial run in 2016 with Marco Rubio running for president.

But as it happens, the former Republican governor, attorney general, education commissioner and state senator waged two campaigns in the last five years and was a big loser in both. As a Democrat, he lost the 2014 race for governor. As a no party affiliation/independent candidate, he lost to Rubio during the rise of the tea party in Florida in 2010.

Crist's downfall in his race with Rubio was his failure to show loyalty to his party. He lost the party's good will, playing his cards closer to Democrats and independents than to the GOP party base. Rubio, on the other hand, floated and boated by the tea party, was rising on the the party's strengthening right arm. The real killer for Crist, though, was his now-famous President Obama embrace during a town hall meeting on the economy Feb. 10, 2009, in Fort Myers. In his book "The Party's Over," Crist would write that the hug "ended my career as a viable Republican politician."

After he lost the Senate race with no party affiliation, he enjoyed a brief period as a martyred hero, making appearances on late-night TV and invited to Democratic Party functions mostly in Washington to tell the story of his brave battle against the Republican right. But as far as anyone knows, he didn't get a Washington job offer out of it.

Crist had to take the bar exam three times, and he hadnt practiced law for at least 18 years when he finished his term as governor in 2011. But that didn't stop Morgan & Morgan, one of Florida's most powerful law firms, from taking him on. The former GOP governor, at that point still partyless, never seemed embarrassed having his image plastered on billboards from one end of the state to the other. With multi-millionaire Democratic fundraiser John Morgan his friend and employer and no requirement to try a single case for the personal injury law firm, it was a masterful career move. It would serve as the perfect springboard for his return to politics.

On the night of Sept. 26, 2012, when Crist was to address the Democratic National Committee at President Obama's invitation, veteran Florida GOP strategist Todd Harris told reporters, Charlie Crist no more believes all of the liberal things hes saying today than he believed the conservative things he was saying in his gubernatorial and senate primaries. The only thing he believes in is himself.

That observation, shared by many of his critics, would be a recurring theme that would dog Crist two years later.

But the process of elimination had taken him to the waiting arms of the Democrats. And the Dems fancied Crist more than they did any of their own. So, within one year Crist had joined the congregation; amazingly, before the year ended, the congregation had made him preacher. Crist, with his high profile, name recognition and popularity as a governor, was the Democrats' chosen candidate to take on Gov. Rick Scott.

Crist went into the race at the beginning of 2014 as a shoo-in. Scott's approval ratings were in the cellar; Crist had a double-digit lead out of the gate. But the Dems might have overestimated Crist's appeal. Certainly their base remembered "Chain Gang Charlie." And some among the rank and file found it distasteful to be force-fed a once-conservative Republican governor. A growing call for a primary debate between Crist, who couldn't find an issue he had been consistently for or against, and former Sen. Nan Rich -- a liberal Democrat who had been in the race for nearly two years and whose positions never wavered -- went unanswered, calling attention to Crist's commitment conflicts.

Crist had other problems, too. His campaign had hoped to make all its hay on Scott's involvement in a Hospital Corporation of America scandal, in which the company Scott led, HCA, was fined $1.7 billion for Medicaid fraud. But the former governor had skeletons of his own -- old campaign contributors and even his hand-picked party chairman, for instance, imprisoned for crimes committed on Crist's watch.

In the end, with both sides predicting victory on Election Day, 66,000 more voters turned out for Scott than for Crist -- a little more than a 1 percent margin of victory -- in what was the costliest election in Florida history.

Crist is scantly seen these days. Morgan & Morgan staff now say he is no longer an employee. Hetiptoed back onto Twitter since he lost the election, mostly with holiday wishes and tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. and the legality of same-sex marriage in Florida. But although he briefly floated thoughts of running for U.S. Senate again -- he walked back the idea when the Florida Democratic Party made it plain it is supporting Rep. Patrick Murphy for that seat.

Charlie Crist is 58. His decision to bow out of the 2016 Senate race is no indication he's leaving politics. He could seek office in 2018. But during the past five years -- particularly in 2010 when SSN wrote so many stories about the governor's office -- Crist's decision to abandon the office enabled Rick Scott to change the tenor in Tallahassee and indeed the whole of the Sunshine State.

(ABOUT THIS SERIES: Charlie Crist is the 19th in a special anniversary series of 20 political personalities who loomed large since early 2010, when Sunshine State News set up shop in Tallahassee.Who else made the list? Click here to find out.)

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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