Politics

The Rise and Fall of Charlie Crist

How the once-popular governor miscalculated his way to defeat in U.S. Senate race
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: November 5, 2010 4:05 AM
Charlie Crist Giving Concession Speech on Election Night

Charlie Crist giving his concession speech on election night. Credit: Jason Budd

In the end, Charlie Crist was too clever for his own good.

The consummate politician who deftly tacked right and left to win a series of elective offices failed in his second bid for U.S. Senate when voters soured on his spinning act.

By losing to Republican Marco Rubio Tuesday, Crist capped one of the steepest falls from grace in Florida electoral history.

Rated as one of the state's most popular governors, enjoying widespread name recognition and the adulation of the Tallahassee press corps, Crist was the odds-on favorite to win the Senate seat a year ago. He had filled that seat with his hand-picked placeholder, George LeMieux. He had the apparatus of the state and national Republican parties behind him.

"The People's Governor" couldn't be beat.

Political insiders and media pundits questioned the wisdom, if not the sanity, of Marco Rubio for jumping into the race. Opening as a 38-point underdog, the former Florida House speaker looked quixotic, at best. 

But Crist's early institutional advantages became his unraveling. His close ties to former state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer cast a shadow over the governor's office. His mild, ever-flexible political posture that had proved so successful turned out to be seriously out of alignment with an increasingly angry electorate.

Meantime, the rise of the tea party movement worked in Rubio's favor and demolished Crist's base, which, for all his years in office (state senator, education commissioner, attorney general), proved to be a mile wide, but only inches deep. 

The seeds of Crist's destruction may well have been sown by his predecessor. While Crist won the governorship in 2006, claiming to be the rightful heir to Jeb Bush's political legacy, Crist's leftward tilt in office did not sit well.

Unlike Bush, a hands-on executive who cared deeply about policy, Crist struck top Republicans as a dilettante driven more by polls than principle. Failing to provide leadership on the state's worsening economy, Crist's political base began crumbling.

"Frankly, he's been a disappointment. It's all about Charlie, all the time" said a longtime Tallahassee lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The governor's last-minute endorsement of John McCain before the state's 2008 GOP primary proved pyrrhic. Crist's tryout for vice president, his peripatetic preening for the national stage, and McCain's own poor performance against Barack Obama raised more suspicion about the governor.

Crist's literal embrace of Obama during a meeting in Fort Myers was the straw that broke the elephant's back.

By early 2010, the Grand Old Party was over for Crist. Greer's ouster and subsequent arrest on fraud and money-laundering charges tainted the governor's self-styled image as an avatar of clean politics and open government. Crist's bona fides on that front had already been undermined by his closed-door gambling pact with the Seminole tribe and his secret U.S. Sugar Corp. deal on the Everglades.

By now, even the once-docile press corps was beginning to challenge Crist on his mounting pile of contradictory positions. He would reply with increasingly glib non-responses.

As his fiscal and social policies blurred with the Democratic Party platform, restive Republicans went from upset to angry. Crist sealed his fate by caving to the Florida Education Association (i.e., Democratic Party) and vetoing Senate Bill 6, the teacher-pay measure authored by John Thrasher, a state senator who also happened to be chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. With the polls flipped against him in favor of Rubio, Crist bolted the GOP in April to pursue his Senate campaign as an independent.

Crist's subsequent claim that he was moving in that direction anyway further mocked his credibility. Florida voters historically have not supported independent candidacies, and Crist's decision looked less like shrewd calculation than pure desperation.

Indeed, Crist badly underestimated the conservative tidal wave that was cresting over Florida. Centrists, like liberals, were incurring the wrath of the electorate -- and Crist's attempts at moderation struck voters as either spineless or grotesquely self-serving, or both.

His attempt to characterize Rubio's positions as "extreme" sounded hollow, since Crist had claimed to support those same positions just six months earlier as an "Abraham Lincoln Republican." Even worse, the extremist label only served to inflame and insult voters -- nearly half of whom were supporting the former Miami lawmaker. By then, Rubio was winning as many independent voters as was the "independent" Crist.

Ironically, the congenitally clever Crist failed to make the one move that might have helped him overtake Rubio in the three-way Senate contest.

Running a close second to Rubio (some early polls actually showed him leading), Crist's best shot was to oust Democrat Kendrick Meek and make it a two-man race. Meek lagged badly in the polls, but garnered enough support to prevent Crist from overcoming Rubio.

"Maybe Crist is too much of a gentleman," says Seth McKee, political science professor of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "But for whatever reason there was no real discussion of strategic voting."

"Strategic voting" is a tactic that breaks party lines to consolidate support for the most viable candidate. In the case of the Senate race, Democrats would agree to support Crist because he was deemed more likely to knock off Rubio.

In the waning days of the campaign, Crist and, apparently, former President Bill Clinton came around to the strategic-voting model, but by then it was too late.

The tactic also was stymied by a unique racial conundrum. Because the Democrats have a black president and a gubernatorial candidate who needed black votes in her closely fought election, the party could ill-afford to do anything to antagonize its African-American base and depress black turnout at the polls.

Always popular among blacks, Crist could have made the case that he, not Meek, was their best hope for the Senate. But he didn't, until it was too late.

Whatever the reason, McKee says "There was not a concerted effort early on" to push strategic voting. When the Clinton-Meek conversation finally surfaced, Crist took heat from critics on both the left and right -- just as he had on so many issues before.

Ultimately, Crist was the man in the middle, with nowhere to go.

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Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.


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