Crist’s Independent Bid Opens New Political Frontier in Florida

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican, was facing an increasingly tough primary battle against state House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has captured the attention of the party’s conservative base.

The race has attracted national attention because it embodies anti-incumbent anger demonstrated in national polls toward elected leaders. Once very popular, Crist now appears ready to leave his own party to get to the U.S. Senate. In November, Sunshine State voters will likely have three well-known candidates to choose between: Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrik Meek, Rubio and Crist.

We asked two experts on the Florida political process for some analysis of how Crist’s announcement could affect this important Senate race:

— Adam Smith, St. Petersburg Times political editor

— Robert Crew, Florida State University professor, associate dean and director of the master’s in applied American politics and policy

Why do you think Crist appears ready to drop out of the GOP primary and run as an independent?

ROBERT CREW: He certainly seems like he has a hell of a lot better chance as an independent than winning the Republican primary. This is essentially the only strategy he could adopt, other than dropping out of the race.

To my surprise, the Republicans have abandoned him and gone to Rubio.

In terms of winning the election, it’s a different issue. He will certainly have to get a lot of Democratic votes and essentially all of the independent votes.

It seems to me he will get some Republican votes. The organized party has been adamantly negative against Crist, but the organized party people are the most partisan people and the most conservative. I don’t think the whole party looks like that.

How does a three-way race shift the dynamics? And might it change the central policy issues in the Senate race?

ADAM SMITH: This is such new territory. I don’t think anyone knows the answer. It’s very hard to see why Marco Rubio would be pleased with a three-way race, but at the same time Crist at least has the potential to peel off a good number of Kendrick Meek supporters. Crist appears to be determined to run against the GOP leadership in Tallahassee, so there may be more emphasis on state issues than there otherwise would have been.

ROBERT CREW: I think the interesting stuff is going to be what happens in the Democratic electorate and with the major interest groups that have supported Democratic candidates.

I think some of those groups might go to Crist. They probably thought Rep. Meek doesn’t have much of a chance anyway and they might better utilize their resources to help someone who helped them, for example, when Crist vetoed Senate Bill 6. (Senate Bill 6 was unpopular with teachers unions because it would tie teacher pay to student performance.)

All of the statewide races in Florida are open. This is unique in Florida history – no incumbent running in a statewide race. The Democrats have a chance that they haven’t had in a long time and are going to spend money in statewide races where they think they have an opportunity and not in a Senate race where they might not have a chance.

Can you explain the significance of an independent candidate running in a statewide election in a large state? Does this happen often? And how might the swing electorate in Florida respond to three relatively well-known candidates, instead of just two?

ADAM SMITH: Other than Ross Perot, it hasn’t happened in many decades. Normally, partisanship in Florida is too strong for an independent candidate to be viable, but Crist is probably the only person who could pull this off. Right now, independent voters are leaning toward the Republican Party, and Democrats have a voter registration advantage

Does Crist face logistical problems now that he dropped his party?

ROBERT CREW: The one thing the Republican Party is particularly good at in the state is their get-out-the-vote. Their on-the-ground GOTV thing is widely regarded as one of the best — if not the best — in the country. A lot of people say that’s what made Karl Rove the power he was — that he adopted Florida’s get-out-the-vote model.

They didn’t do nearly as well as Obama did in registering new voters and getting early voters out. But they are really good at getting registered voters out to the polls.

Crist doesn’t have that now. And there’s no way he can replicate that now. He can get the basic voter list, but he can’t get all these people in the precincts around Florida calling on his behalf.

This Senate race has become a national story. Do you think there is anything we can learn about the national political climate from this decision? Or is this just one Senate race with unique circumstances?

ADAM SMITH: I think to some extent the storyline about emergence of the tea party and the GOP moving right is on target, but Crist’s problems go much deeper than that. He has turned off a lot of moderate Republicans and swing voters too who have come to perceive him as just another self-serving politician.

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