As Florida Democrats gear up for the 2012 Election cycle, the most talked about name in party and activist circles is not a current member of the party, but in fact a longtime former Republican officeholder. No question exists that Charlie Crist, wrongly counted out before by the political establishment of both parties, remains a heavyweight in Florida politics and the desperation of a party that hasn’t developed its own bench of quality candidates or a definitive statewide brand identity may lead to a shotgun marriage in time for the 2014 election.
The Democrats have lost 13 of the last 14 statewide races for Governor or Cabinet offices, a record which is comparable to that of rock solid Republican states like Utah and Idaho and worse over the same period as traditional GOP strongholds like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Arizona. It is logical and perhaps admirably pragmatic that a desperate party that has failed to properly train or promote a “farm team,” would turn to a proven statewide vote getter to try and regain a foothold at the highest levels.
Crist is perhaps the savviest politician in the state. In 1998, he wisely challenged unbeatable Democratic Senator Bob Graham but used the race to get his name out. In 2000, he ran for an office that was being abolished within two years, Commissioner of Education in order to further his name ID statewide. It was in that race, while running several counties for the Democratic nominee, George Sheldon, I observed Crist’s unique qualities on the stump and one on one with voters. Previously, I had been highly tainted by the Tallahassee crowd I worked with, many of whom viewed Crist as a perennial lightweight and in some cases a figure comedy. That same crowd mocked Crist’s Attorney General credentials noting he had failed the Florida Bar exam multiple times and that the establishment GOP primary candidates (Senator Locke Burt and Solicitor General Tom Warner) were more qualified to be the state’s top law enforcement officer. Crist beat both of them and Democratic nominee Buddy Dyer, handily, demonstrating incredible political skills and an uncanny grasp of voters concerns in the process. Fast forward to 2006, and many Bush loyalists displeased with Crist’s performance as Attorney General,( where he played populist and shifted position frequently) opposed his nomination but he won both the primary and general election with ease.
For the first time in Crist’s career, he hit a brick wall in 2009 and 2010 as National Republicans and assorted right wing pressure groups coalesced behind the candidacy of Marco Rubio for US Senate. Given Crist’s ability to change political positions and ideology on a dime, both Crist and many elected Democrats wisely sensed an opportunity but bumbled and stumbled all over its execution, leaving a US Senate seat in the hands of the dangerously ideological and telegenic Rubio. In hindsight, Rubio may have been unbeatable in a partisan GOP tide, but any chance the Democrats or Crist had of stopping him were blown early on, and what resulted was damage to Democratic morale and divisiveness throughout the state.
To doubt Charlie Crist was once a partisan Republican is foolhardy, and would involve a significant re-writing of history. In 1995, as State Senator he held up Governor Lawton Chiles most critical appointments until the final day of session for strictly political reasons. The same year he initiated a Senate investigation of campaign calls made by the Chiles campaign. In the long history of political campaigns, dirty tricks have been conducted over and over again. In the very same election GOP nominee Jeb Bush accused Governor Chiles of being soft on crime while shamelessly exploiting the family of a murder victim in a TV ad. But it was Chiles that was accused of dirty tricks by Crist in a politically motivated investigation which cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.
In 1996, he helped lead the Republican opposition to Governor Chiles landmark lawsuit against the Tobacco Industry and then a year later, Crist conducted another partisan witch hunt, this time against the attorney’s who bravely represented the state in the Tobacco Lawsuit. By 1997, Crist was firmly viewed within the halls of the Legislature as a show horse and a partisan. But beginning with the aforementioned 1998 US Senate race, Crist began a transformation from partisan Republican to political pragmatist who felt the pulse of Florida’s electorate.
For almost 15 years Crist has been for lack of a better term a populist. In this day and age populism can mean anything from Rick Santorum’s attacks on snobs and intellectuals, or Dennis Kucinch’s attacks on war mongers. But for Crist, populism is simply reacting to the nuances and anger of Florida voters, be it on gas prices, insurance rates or education cuts.
Perhaps Crist can help define an ideology for 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. Simply put, many Florida Democrats do not understand the state’s voters and the need to formulate a positive policy agenda even though throughout in the period since 1998 when the GOP has won 13 of 14 statewide offices and approximately 65% of contested Legislative elections, the Democrats have held a significant statewide registration advantage.
Last week, David Axelrod gave the following commentary to the Tampa Bay Times:
“The president has a very high regard for Gov. Crist. He made a really courageous decision back in 2009 and there’s no doubt that he made it because he thought it was what was best for the state of Florida. He understood the politics were difficult and he made it nonetheless. He deserves enormous credit for that and the courage he showed. You know we all talk about that we want public officials who are willing to put the next generation ahead of the next election and he was willing to make a decision like that. So we admire him.”
In plain English, the top Democrats in the nation are now mirroring the actions of many local partisan officials in trying to coax Crist to become a Democrat. Maybe this is the type of pragmatism Florida Democrats need to recover from the worst 15 years in the parties post Reconstruction era history. Or perhaps this will further marginalize the Democrats statewide, allowing the GOP to cement their already dominant position. Only time will tell.