Florida Governor Charlie Crist exited the Republican senate primary with much fanfare this evening, announcing his intention to run without party affiliation before a hometown crowd of supporters in St. Petersburg and under the bright lights of a captivated national media. His decision not only launched a fascinating three-way Senate race, but the swift flight of his top campaign staff and a volley of Republican invectives from Tallahassee to D.C.
The most stinging rebuke came from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a long-time, behind-the-scenes foe. “I am not surprised,” Bush said in a statement. “This decision is not about policy or principles. It is about what he believes is in his political self-interest.”
In his speech, Crist insisted he was “putting the needs of the people first,” rather predictably railing against “a broken political system.” Whether it was his foremost motivation or not, there’s no doubt the move improves his chances of being elected to the Senate in November. Just not by very much.
If Crist, who was trailing conservative darling Marco Rubio by double digits in a primary match-up, was stone cold dead yesterday, he may now qualify as having a faint pulse. Though the governor is a master of affable flesh-pressing and boasts a formidable fundraising record, he’ll be facing a tough race with a skeleton crew of staffers and organizers — the cost of leaving party establishment behind — and a severely limited donor pool. He’ll have to stretch every penny and rely heavily on free media to cover the shortfall. His woes extend beyond mere logistics too; the numbers don’t add up well for the governor. Crist would likely have to win over more Republicans than back him now — a tall order after ditching the party — while carrying the independents and attracting a chunk of Democrats to boot in order to win.
Rubio remains the conventional wisdom favorite. His approval ratings among Republicans are through the roof, and conservative enthusiasm promises to further boost his organization and fundraising. The dynamic former Speaker has shown deftness in exciting his base without coming off as too extreme. His statement on the controversial Arizona immigration law is a case study in rhetorical tightrope walking. Maintaining that balance as he transitions to the three-way race is crucial to his success. Rubio runs the risk of overplaying his anti-Obama message with the general electorate; the president still enjoys fair approval ratings in Florida, and they’ve ticked up since the passage of health care.
Rep. Kendrick Meek, a cherubic former sheriff and the presumptive Democratic nominee, is a relative unknown. He’ll need a much more significant TV presence (and the money to fuel it) to up his profile. But if he can get the national party interested , and attract President Obama along with other high-profile Dems for events, he has a much better chance of pulling out a win. There are more Democrats than Republicans registered in Florida; if he can manage to become a face for his party and unite the base, the numbers look promising.
Despite their differences, the narrative for each candidate will likely fall along the same line: “It’s me versus the two other guys.” Meek will play up the fact that he’s running against two Republicans to shore up his base. Crist will tout his independence, accusing his opponents of being beholden to party establishment interests. Rubio, who already found traction with the Tea Party crowd, will tag his rivals as stimulus-loving, big government gargoyles. And in a campaign cycle like this, the three career politicians are all sure to claim the mantle of outsider.
Not everything in the race is so predictable, and there are really three wildcards in all of this. For starters, there’s an ongoing federal investigation into the Republican Party of Florida’s expenses, and an IRS probe into Rubio’s tax records. Crist could be harmed by the inquiries as well — his hand-picked former party chairmen Jim Greer is at the center of the storm. Secondly, what happens with the economy — especially the hard-hit Florida housing market — could affect the outcome of the race. As governor, Crist would likely enjoy the fruits of a robust recovery more than his rivals. Lastly, there’s the possibility of other candidates. Billionaire Jeff Greene, who made a killing shorting mortgages and has ties to John Paulson of Goldman-SEC fame, is reportedly being informally advised by veteran Democratic operatives Joe Trippi and Doug Schoen. He’s got a lot of baggage, but Greene could mount a self-funded monster of a bid if he’s serious about it.
After today’s climactic shift, it’s hard to imagine a higher drama unfolding in Florida. But the Sunshine Slugfest has yet to disappoint. And it doesn’t look like it will any time soon.