Democrats Looking Past Charlie Crist for 2014

Beth Reinhard

A group of prominent Democrats alarmed by a potential gubernatorial bid by a recent convert to the party -- former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist -- is trying to draft former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz into the race.

Here's one interesting twist: Diaz, an ex-Democrat who won elections in 2001 and 2005 as an independent, would have to change his own party affiliation to run in the 2014 primary.

The pro-Diaz contingent sees Crist as a political opportunist whose betrayal of the GOP would unify Republican voters behind the unpopular incumbent, Rick Scott. Crist once touted himself as a conservative but left the party to avoid losing to Marco Rubio in the 2010 Republican Senate primary. The former governor went on to campaign for President Obama in 2012, speak at his national convention and most recently, change his voter registration from independent to Democratic.

But the politically remodeled Crist stands out in a state where the Democratic bench has thinned in the face of Republican domination for more than a decade. The Democratic nominee in 2010, Alex Sink, narrowly lost to Scott but has been criticized for running a lackluster campaign. The only major candidate, state Sen. Nan Rich, is a little-known liberal Democrat who faces an uphill battle in the nation’s largest swing state.

So some Democrats are turning to the less partisan Diaz, who left City Hall in 2009 with a legacy of downtown revitalization, despite some blemishes. The Cuban-born lawyer would have obvious appeal in a state where 14 percent of the registered voters are Hispanic. He also has national fundraising connections through his one-time leadership of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Among the Democrats who have talked to Diaz about a potential campaign is former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, whose own Senate bid in 2010 was doomed when Crist became an independent and siphoned away support from liberals and moderates. Rubio trounced them both, ending two long political careers.

“Manny Diaz is a successful, proven leader, a friend to Democrats and a moderate with the ability to raise the resources to run,” said Meek on Friday. “I think he’s beyond seriously considering it. He is calling people and testing the waters.”

Diaz recently published a book recapping his political career with a foreword from his fellow independent and political ally, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He did not return calls from National Journal on Friday. 

Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who helped Obama win Florida in 2008 and 2012, said he’s not convinced Diaz would be a stronger candidate than Crist. President Obama mentioned Crist's name in a press conference this week while criticizing Republicans for being excessively partisan.

“The former governor is a well-known quantity from the beginning, and that’s an advantage he has over any other Democratic candidate," Schale said. "He’s in a better place in the polls and can raise more cash. Democrats also like him despite the fact that they all know he used to be a Republican.”

A survey released this week by the Democratic robo-calling firm Public Policy Polling found that 70 percent of Democrats view Crist favorably and more than half prefer him as a candidate for governor over Sink, Rich, former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. By contrast, only one out of three voters approve of Scott. He even faces hurdles among Republicans, who approve of him by only 49 percent. In a potential matchup between Crist and Scott, the former governor has a double-digit edge.

“Rick Scott continues to be one of the most unpopular governors in the country and most Democrats are embracing Charlie Crist now that he’s officially joined the party,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, in a press release about the poll. “It’s early, but Crist looks like the favorite if he tries to get his old office back next year.”