Governor Crist has finally made official what was coming for months. On Friday, he officially declared himself a Democrat and in doing so has set of a wild frenzy of speculation as to whether progressives will embrace him or simply brandish him as a turncoat. The excellent conservative website BizPac Review reminded us on Friday that Crist in 2006 touted himself as a pro-life conservative in direct mail sent by the Republican Party of Florida. That year despite a fairly moderate to populist record as Attorney General, Crist was trying to sure up his conservative bonafides, first to fight off Tom Gallagher in the primary and then to hold together the GOP base in November. It is worth recalling that Crist had serious issues with GOP activists particularly after the Terry Schiavo case and he was trying very hard at this point to appear like a true Republican.
Crist’s strong record in 2012 of campaigning for President Obama, Senator Nelson and several Democrats running for Congress and the legislature has endeared him to many party regulars. However, still most activists I speak to do not trust the former Governor and fear a Crist nomination could completely strip the party of any principles and turn the Democrats into a mesh-mash of disparate groups who simply do not like Rick Scott; not much different than the pathetic state of the national GOP in the FDR years. At the time the GOP lacked any ideology and simply became a landing place for those who did not like the New Deal or felt Roosevelt had too much power. But in reality Florida Democrats have long ago lost its way, despite the efforts of some good legislative leaders such as Dan Gelber, Nan Rich, Keith Fitzgerald and Chris Smith.
With the Democrats suffering from a lack of a cohesive message over many years, perhaps Crist can help define an ideology. For the better part of 15 years a Democratic Party that in Florida lacks any coherent message or policy vision other than attacking Republican officeholders and in some cases trying to distance themselves from National Democrats. Party discipline has been non-existent in the party for years and Tallahassee insiders continue to try and dictate events despite being almost completely aloof from developments in the major populations centers of the state. The weakness of the FDP and most local DEC’s has for years promoted a free-for-all among elected officials to accrue influence and in many cases to cut deals with local or Tallahassee-based Republicans.
No question exists that Crist is gaining traction in the Democratic Party. But that traction is being gained largely among big donors, and other insiders. To many of the rank in file, Crist appears to be a combination of an opportunist and a sore loser. Whether this is a fair assessment of Crist is up for debate. But no question exists that the former Governor must show a significant change even from his 2010 positions as an Independent US Senate candidate to win a Democratic Primary.
Despite the obvious downside of Crist’s potential Gubernatorial campaign there is a significant upside. A Crist nomination would almost certainly help the Democrats try and buck an embarrassing trend. Since 1999, the GOP has won 13 of 14 statewide offices and approximately 65% of contested Legislative elections, despite the Democrats having held a significant statewide registration advantage during the entire period, and having basically won 3 of 4 Presidential elections in the state during the period . This record of statewide futility is comparable with rock-ribbed GOP states such as Utah and Idaho, and actually worse than the Democratic performance in states like Kansas, Montana and Wyoming. Even among southern states, only Texas has an embarrassingly similar record of losing elections. But unlike any of the states named above, Florida is considered a “purple” if not actually a “blue” state on the national level.
Florida Democrats could do a lot better than Charlie Crist, but they also could do a lot worse. In fact, they have done worse in the past and Crist knows he has an opening and perhaps his once keen sense of timing (which eluded him in 2010 after almost 15 years of playing his cards correctly) has returned. Only time will tell if this was the right move at the right time for Governor Crist.