For a man without a party, former Governor Charlie Crist is certainly in demand these days among Democrats. Crist was campaigning yesterday for former Florida Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson, who is locked in a four way Democratic Primary battle for the right to challenge freshman Republican Steve Southerland (R-Panama City) in Congressional District 2’s general election. Crist had previously donated twice to Patrick Erin Murphy’s Congressional campaign when the Democrat was locked in a primary against Lois Frankel in Congressional District 22. Murphy has since chosen to move his candidacy to the 18th Congressional District in order to continue his challenge to GOP Freshman Allen West (R-Plantation). Murphy is perceived as close to allies of former Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, who has a long-standing relationship with Crist.
The presence of Crist in public supporting Democrats taking on somewhat vulnerable Freshmen Republicans should not shock anybody. Political scuttlebutt is that Crist is aggressively courting Democratic elected officials and activists to feel out a potential return to electoral politics in 2014 as a Democrat. Since the Democrats have failed to develop a statewide farm team over the past decade, many Democrats are desperate for Crist to join the party. With bridges permanently burned in the GOP among activists and most elected officials (Senator Mike Fasano and Representative Peter Nehr not withstanding) a man who has run statewide five times (winning three of those races) has no political home. The elements for a shotgun marriage appear to be in place.
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. But with Rod Smith as the FDP Chairman the messaging is improving, party discipline is increasing, and many of our elected officials are getting less selfish. The weakness of the FDP and most local DEC’s 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. It is also fairly obvious that had Crist made a definitive break with the GOP earlier in his Gubernatorial term, he may right now be in the catbirds seat and in control of the state party apparatus. But Crist’s initial instinct to move right to counter Marco Rubio in the GOP Senate Primary (after Crist began his term in 2007 as populist/liberal Republican), cut off any realistic possibility of him being the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2010 despite the efforts of the Obama Administration and a few southeast Florida based elected officials who intervened.
Now, with Smith a strong party chair and with the respect of most elected officials(Smith is perhaps the strongest FDP chair since Charlie Whitehead) Crist faces an uphill fight to ensure a bloodless process by which he becomes the 2014 nominee for Governor. It is entirely possible Crist can run as a Democrat in the 2016 US Senate race (presumably vs Marco Rubio but there are two national elections between now and then where Rubio could very conceivably be on the GOP ticket) and avoid any sort of serious primary election. But Crist, knowing he must accumulate favors within the Democratic Party, is actively campaigning and contributing to campaigns, hoping that he can create his own statewide network of Democratic officials outside of the state party apparatus.
Still, a Crist nomination would certainly help the Democrats try and buck an embarrassing trend. Since 1998 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. This record of statewide futility is comparable with rock-ribbed GOP states such as Utah and Idaho, and actually worse than Democratic performance in states like Kansas, Montana and Wyoming.
Charlie Crist certainly is courting a potential marriage partner. The question is how willing or desperate is the potential partner.