Florida Democrats Wary as National Party Embraces Crist

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist joined the Democratic Party with trademark panache, posting a picture of himself brandishing the signed paperwork on Twitter--from a White House Christmas party. Florida newspapers reported that President Obama responded to the news with a fist pump.

That was Friday. Two days later, the newly elected chairman of the Democratic Governors Association said that Crist was “certainly high on the list” of recruits for the 2014 governor’s race. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin also called Crist “an incredibly capable leader ... a great governor … and a very strong candidate,” although he said he wasn’t ruling out other potential candidates.

The embrace from the Democratic establishment as Crist weighs a campaign for his old job carries faint echoes of 2009; only then it was the national Republican Party closing ranks around Crist immediately after he launched a U.S. Senate bid. The early endorsement of the sitting governor over then-underdog Marco Rubio culminated in a giant comeuppance for the Republican Party, as the tea party-infused grassroots revolted against the ideologically squishy governor and the top-down political establishment. Rubio became one of the GOP’s brightest stars while Crist, forced to flee the primary, became an independent and lost anyway.

Now, some Democratic activists are getting anxious as they perceive the national party’s heavy hand on Crist’s political conversion. “They’re trying to clear the field, and I resent that,” said Susan Smith, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida. “Charlie Crist is not a Democrat, no matter what that piece of paper says.”

After all, this is a politician once dubbed “Chain Gang Charlie” for promoting roadside chain gangs, who auditioned to be Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s running mate in 2008, and who ferociously beat back Democratic challengers to serve for 18 years as a Republican state senator, education commissioner, attorney general, and governor.

But political reality is a potent motivator. Democrats’ fervid desire to knock out the unpopular, Republican incumbent, Rick Scott, makes a political pro like Crist difficult to dismiss. Scott was a leading foe of “Obamacare” even before he was elected. He has battled repeatedly with the teachers union over merit pay and with Democrats over new election rules they view as GOP attempts at voter suppression. “No option is off the table when we have to beat Rick Scott,” said Mitch Ceasar, the longtime Democratic Party chairman in Broward County, the party’s biggest stronghold in Florida with nearly 600,000 Democratic voters. “I think people will definitely give him a fair shake.”

Crist also can point to a record of backing Democratic causes like restoring voting rights to felons, and in contrast to Scott, vetoing an antiunion teacher bill and expanding early voting during the 2008 election. He was one of the only prominent Republicans to back President Obama’s economic-stimulus plan in 2009. In the 2012 election, Crist raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama, served as a campaign surrogate at rallies and in television interviews, and touted him from the stage of the Democratic convention in Tampa.

“Charlie Crist has earned his stripes with run-of-the-mill Democrats, though I understand why it’s hard for some activists to get their arms around it,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who helped Obama win Florida in 2008 and 2012.

For a cautionary tale, Crist can look to the late Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania who switched parties and was defeated in a hailstorm of bad will in the 2010 Democratic primary.

But after more than a decade in the minority of state government, the Democratic farm team in Florida is thin. The strongest potential candidate for governor is Alex Sink, the state’s former chief financial officer, who narrowly lost to Scott in 2010 but who drew criticism from her own party for a lackluster campaign. The only major Democrat already in the race is Nan Rich, a little-known, liberal state senator from South Florida facing an uphill battle in a big swing state.

“We’ve got all this momentum from the presidential election, but we haven’t really built a bench,” said Wendy Sejour, who leads the Democracy for America chapter in the Miami area. “If nobody else comes up and Charlie Crist is our candidate, I will vote for him, but I sure won’t stand on a street corner and scream for him.”

Such wariness is more prevalent in the left wing of the Democratic Party. If Crist is faced with a standoff against progressive Democratic rivals, the primary could shape up to be an epic battle for the heart and soul of the party--just four years after he faced the more conservative Rubio in an epic battle for the heart and soul of the GOP.

“A lot of people don’t trust him,” said Barbara Effman, the longtime president of the West Broward Democratic Club, one of the largest in the state. “He didn’t want to be a Republican, and then he didn’t want to be an independent, and now that he’s been a Democrat for a few days, he thinks he can be governor?”

An automated survey conducted in September by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling suggests that Crist would be competitive in both a Democratic primary and a general election. He was viewed favorably by 55 percent of the Democrats, and he also outpaced Scott, 48 percent to 43 percent, in a potential matchup.

Ceasar said that Crist has called him several time in the last couple of months. “It tells me he’s not only considering it but probably already crossed the line and made the decision to run,” he said. “I think him changing parties was the opening volley of the 2014 race.”

Indeed, top Democratic strategists are already lining up to work for Crist. Appearing on MSNBC on Monday, Crist name-dropped that he had recently dined with Bob Graham, the former governor and senator and the elder statesman of the state’s Democratic Party. “If you decide to run for governor, we’ll have a nice platform for you right here,” gushed host Chris Matthews. A CNN interview later Tuesday gave Crist a chance to sing Hillary Rodham Clinton’s praises on national television.

But to the GOP establishment, Crist is public enemy No. 1. The Florida Republican Party has been hammering Crist for months over his flip-flops on issues and allegations that his former handpicked state chairman, Jim Greer, stole party money. On Monday, the Republican Governors Association joined the attack. “While the Democrats consider how to reinvent Charlie Crist and their relationship with him, we look forward to being able to support Governor Scott’s reelection on the merits of his record,” the RGA blasted in an e-mail.

The backlash makes Crist an appealing poster boy for Democrats eager to portray the GOP as extreme and out-of-touch. He’s a proven fundraiser and happy warrior on the campaign trail. At the same time, party leaders recognize the repercussions that can come from playing favorites.

“He would be an attractive candidate,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and a congresswoman from South Florida. “But as the DNC chair, I’m not going to put my thumb on the scale and suggest there’s a preferred candidate, because there isn’t.”

Graham, the governor and senator who Crist tried to unseat in 1998, said that dinner with his old rival was planned before he switched parties. “Florida has a long history of Democrats becoming Republicans, so it’s kind of refreshing,” Graham said. Asked if he thought Crist would be a good candidate, Graham was more circumspect: “He has the right to ask Democrats to be their governor.”