A Tallahassee Trap?

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Our Miami-based colleague Tim Padgett files this report on a very savvy Charlie Crist:

At first glance, Tuesday looked like a bad day for Florida Governor Charlie Crist. He’d called the Florida legislature back to Tallahassee to consider placing an initiative on the November ballot asking voters whether offshore oil drilling should be constitutionally banned. But after convening for less than an hour, the state’s Republican-led House of Representatives voted along party lines to adjourn, effectively kiboshing the drilling amendment. House Speaker Larry Cretul blasted Crist for giving legislators “far too little time for reflection and review,” and he accused the Governor – who supports a Florida drilling ban in the wake of the Gulf oil spill disaster – of trying to reap political “photo ops.”

But the big question tonight is, Did Cretul and the Florida GOP just get played by Charlie? Before gasoline hit $4-a-gallon two summers ago, most Floridians opposed drilling off their world-famous beaches. And, like Crist (who’s done his share of flipping on the issue), they’ve returned to that stand since the Gulf catastrophe reminded them of the damage a nearby spill could wreak on their $60-billion tourism industry. In a Quinnipiac University poll last month, Floridians’ support for increased offshore drilling plunged from 66% before April’s Deepwater Horizon rig accident, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, to 42%. Other polls indicate an even more sizeable majority also favored a chance to vote on the drilling ban.

As a result, Tuesday’s special session may well have been a win-win call for Crist – who a few months ago bolted the Republican Party to run as an independent in the Nov. 2 race for Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat. If the legislature had voted to put a constitutional offshore drilling ban to voters, it most likely would have boosted his campaign against GOP candidate Marco Rubio, whom Crist is already leading in the polls. (Florida Congressman Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic candidate, is in third.) But given the state’s current mood about Big Oil, Tuesday’s move by House Republicans could end up doing the same for Crist, who afterward called the chamber “a do-nothing legislature.” Sounding the populism that’s been a trademark of his independent run, Crist said, “The people should be heard on this issue.”

If enough Florida voters feel the same way, then the state’s GOP may have walked into a Tallahassee trap today. Its leadership calculated that by not even allowing a vote on the ballot initiative issue, the House would exact sharper humiliation on Crist – a reflection of their bitterness toward the moderate Governor since his divorce from a party he insists has moved too far to the right. But Sunshine State Republicans may have instead risked looking arrogant if not petulant – and, worse, the pal of Big Oil, given that the Florida GOP, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald review, have received almost 2 ½ times more in campaign contributions since the start of 2009 than the state’s Democrats did. It just might have been a good day for Charlie after all.