The Winter of Charlie Crist’s Political Discontent

Conservatives have long knives out for Gov. Charlie Crist.

While the political establishment in Tallahassee and DC is fully supporting incumbent Crist for the Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat over upstart rising star Marco Rubio, the clear conservative choice is emerging.

Crist was recruited to run and immediately endorsed by the Senate Republican campaign committee, led by Texas Senator John Cornyn. Although this support smacks of party bosses discouraging competition, Cornyn promised on November 4 that his campaign committee would not spend one dollar in the Florida primary.

On paper, Crist is a strong candidate. He’s a legendary fundraiser, has statewide name identification, resources and gravitas – all major advantages. But upon inspection, Crist’s vulnerabilities come into focus.

Conservative fears about Crist were confirmed on February 10 when he skipped a Cabinet meeting to famously hug President Barack Obama at a Fort Myers rally for the federal stimulus legislation, saying, “We know that it’s important that we pass a stimulus package.” Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on February 22, Crist said, “Certainly this stimulus package, about $12.2 billion to Florida, will help Florida an awful lot.” On November 5 on CNN, Crist incredulously claimed that he “never endorsed the stimulus.”

Meanwhile, Crist’s point-man on the stimulus, Don Winstead, painstakingly tried to convince Florida lawmakers that the 29,000 Florida jobs “saved or created” by the bill so far was actually 64,300, employing tortured logic and self-defining “spin-off jobs.”

Apart from the stimulus, Crist is moderate on other key conservative issues. After campaigning as a “Jeb Bush” Republican, he’s governed as a liberal by signing legislation to create a statewide cap and trade system in Florida, increasing taxes and fees on tobacco products, DMV services and court fees, only recently reversing his former opposition to offshore drilling, refusing to say that abortion should be illegal (he’s described himself as both “pro choice” and “pro life”), bucking Jeb Bush and supporting then-State Senator Kendrick Meek’s expensive mandate to reduce class sizes, supporting homosexual civil unions and backing Mel Martinez’s amnesty immigration bill. Crist even pushed to restore voting rights for some 750,000 ex-felons in Florida.

Consider this chilling example of selfishness and arrogance: Crist has selfishly injected himself into the politics of an independent regulatory agency, clumsily attempting to stack the deck to overturn a likely agency decision that he disagreed with. Crist chose to fire two sitting members of the Public Service Commission before they could rule on two rate proposals that would strengthen the state’s energy infrastructure, mostly for petty and political reasons. But the message was crystal clear to Florida government officials, even those at independent regulatory bodies. They have been put on notice that they must toe the line of the Governor or risk being professionally embarrassed, undermined or passed over.

Add to that the embarrassing revelation that Crist has set an extremely leisurely schedule since becoming Governor. The St. Petersburg Times and Miami Herald recently reported that Crist takes about ten weeks off per year.

However, Crist is most vulnerable on Florida’s faltering economy, with an insurance crisis, 11% unemployment, and the highest foreclosures in the nation. As such, Crist’s public approval rating has fallen to 42 percent.

But the cause célèbre with conservatives is Crist’s vocal support of Obama’s stimulus bill. Reihan Salam writes in Forbes that by accepting all of the stimulus, “Crist has committed Florida to a fiscal nightmare, one that will lead to draconian tax hikes and spending cuts long after he makes a break for the U.S. Senate or finds some other comfortable sinecure thanks to the good graces of his many wealthy friends.” Imagine the irony that after signing into law $2 billion in new taxes and fees, Crist hosted a small business summit in Tallahassee last week.

The question is: why would Florida Republicans vote for someone who has supported anti-business policies and is blocking investment in energy infrastructure intended to prevent a utility collapse akin to California’s in the 1990s?

Floridians are beginning to realize that they have a real choice in the primary.

Marco Rubio, a 38 year old Catholic father of four whose parents fled Cuba in 1959, has generated significant excitement among the base as an “unapologetic conservative.” Articulate, energetic and good-looking, Rubio excites Republican voters. In recent weeks he’s stressed his conservative credentials on cable news and stated his opposition to a health care takeover and unrestrained government spending. National Review featured Rubio on its cover and he’s winning endorsements (former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Jim DeMint and Sen. James Inhofe).

So where does the race stand?

Crist built a significant early lead of 30 points. Those polls have narrowed, and where voters know both candidates, Rubio and Crist are nearly tied with likely primary voters are trending toward Rubio. Momentum and excitement is with Rubio right now, as he overwhelmingly wins county straw polls and has significantly increased his fundraising.

The closed primary of Florida’s four million registered Republicans may result in turnout around 400,000 people.

As George Will wrote in a column supporting Rubio in the Washington Post, “Their primary will test whether the party has become so risk-averse that it flinches from interesting choices.”

Conservatives can send a message to Washington that they oppose backroom deals and to choose the best candidate.

In the Florida Senate primary, a clear choice is emerging and it will be a very unpleasant few months for Governor Charlie Crist.

Matt Mackowiak is an Austin and Washington, D.C.-based GOP political and communications consultant and founder of Potomac Strategy Group, LLC, and was a Senate Press Secretary from 2005-2009.