The last time Florida Gov. Charlie Crist ran for the Senate, he got 37.5 percent of the vote and lost by a million-ballot landslide.
This November, 37.5 percent could make him the next senator from Florida.
Crist, who is ending a term as governor, is running as an independent against Democrat Rep. Kendrick Meek and Republican Marco Rubio.
Crist, the former Republican and John McCain ally, offers himself as an outside choice who can overcome the partisan impasse in the nation’s capitol.
“We have more gridlock there than anyone can imagine; more frustration with how Washington doesn’t work,” he says on the opening video on his campaign website.
Two of the candidates, Meek and Rubio, had been scheduled to spar on NBC's “Meet the Press” on Sunday, but that debate was cancelled Friday at Rubio's request.
“Unfortunately, the health of Marco’s father, Mario Rubio, has significantly deteriorated in the last 48 hours,” said a spokesman in a statement. “Marco plans to stay with his father and family during this time.”
How to win a three-way race
With the unusual dynamics of a competetive three-way race, independents may prove less crucial than die-hard party loyalists. If a candidate can turn out most of his loyalists — even if they’re a minority of the electorate — he can win.
It has happened before: in Democratic-leaning New York, a deep-dyed conservative, James Buckley, won a Senate seat in 1970 with 39 percent against a Democrat and a liberal Republican.
Florida hasn’t had a three-way Senate race since 1974 when the presence of a third-party conservative on the ballot may have helped Democrat Richard Stone win with only 43 percent of the vote.
In the Aug. 24 primary Meek crushed self-funded candidate Jeff Greene, who outspent him by seven-to-one. Now Meek must raise millions more to compete in November.
The state’s sprawling size and ten major media markets make it a very expensive place to run a campaign. “I feel very confident we’ll have the resources to win in November,” said Meek’s campaign manager Abe Dyk.
Will outsiders get involved?
Whether outside groups decide to get involved in the race could prove crucial.
“We want Kendrick Meek to win,” said Jim Dean, executive director of Democracy for America, a progressive grassroots group.
But he explained, “We don’t have unlimited bandwidth. We’re a little bit late to this, but it’s not for lack of love. We’re now balancing a lot of other commitments we’ve already made to other candidates. We can’t be everywhere at once.”
But Dean said his group might still get involved in the race.
Meek’s strategy seems clear: score Democratic votes by emphasizing his strong party identity and stance on heart-felt Democratic issues: he is pro-choice on abortion, for gay rights, and voted for the Democrats’ cap-and-trade global warming bill.
“Kendrick can win because he is the only Democrat running against two lifelong conservative Republicans,” said Dyk.
Surveys taken in the past few weeks show Rubio leading Crist, with Meek garnering about 20 percent of the vote.
Crist’s poll numbers “numbers are higher because he has universal name ID,” said Dyk. “We’ve to room to grow and we will. Crist can only go down.”
More registered Democrats than Republicans
According to the Florida Division of Elections, 42 percent of the state’s registered voters are Democrats, 36 percent are Republicans, 19 percent are independents, and 3 percent belong to minor parties.
If Meek gets almost every one of the Democrats, he can win. But in a year in which polls show a GOP edge in voter enthusiasm, the electorate may not skew Democratic on Nov. 2.
Much has changed since Crist first ran for the Senate in 1998. Back then it was a simple two-man contest: Republican Crist against Democrat Sen. Bob Graham.
Crist had earned the nickname "Chain Gang Charlie" for his proposal as a state legislator to revive prison chain gangs. He brought in Newt Gingrich to campaign for him and Oliver North to raise money for him. Crist also ran grainy television ads featuring a bleary-eyed President Bill Clinton, calling for his resignation over the Monica Lewinsky affair.
A split in the GOP
This year, Crist left the Republican Party after it became clear he wouldn’t win the primary against Rubio, a hero to conservatives who has strong backing from the Club for Growth and from Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund.
Between July 1 and Aug. 31, DeMint’s fund spent $7,400 in independent expenditures to help Rubio, according to the Federal Election Commission website. The group’s own web site says that so far in the campaign it has been responsible for more than $420,000 in spending for Rubio, both in independent expenditures and in donations generated for him.
There’s no doubt where Rubio stands: he’s for repealing Obama' health care overhaul and has accused both the president and Democrats of exploiting the recession “to implement the statist policies that they have longed for.”
He denounced those who “think that America’s enemies exist because of something America did to earn their enmity.” And he called the 2010 election “a referendum on the very identity of our nation.”
Conservative Republicans have no reason not to vote for him.
A winning Crist coalition?
But unlike Rubio, Crist must draw independents as well as many disaffected Democrats and some Republicans. This had led to some ambiguity on his part.
Asked if he’d organize with Senate Democrats if elected, Crist told CNN, “I don't have to say I'm going to caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans.” He claimed that Florida voters already “know the way I'm going to go. I'm going to go the way that is best for them.”
Crist also sidestepped a question about his statement during the 2008 campaign that GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin “would do a great job” as president if she had to take over for McCain. “She really is the only executive that is running ... I think she's ready,” Crist said.
Crist recently said that his Palin praise “doesn't really matter.”
Crist has proven he can win statewide, winning elections as Florida’s education commissioner, attorney general, and governor. He won the governor’s race in 2006 in what was dismal year for GOP.
Why vote for Crist
“Charlie Crist has been a very popular governor and is going to draw from moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats,” said Orlando lawyer John Morgan, a veteran donor to Democratic candidates, who is raising money for Crist. “The only votes Kendrick Meek will get are from African-Americans and those who just see a ‘D’ next to the candidate’s name and vote Democratic.”
Morgan called Crist “a bleeding heart conservative” and points to his political courage in accepting federal stimulus money at a time when some other GOP governors were balking at it. It was his public embrace of Obama during the stimulus debate that first sparked the conservative backlash against Crist.
He said that, that “after all the Republican Party has done to Charlie, he caucuses with the Democrats” in the Senate, if he wins on Nov 2.
Morgan said Crist, as an independent in a closely divided Senate, would have enormous power for a freshman senator. “It will be a huge win for Florida.”
Meek “got swept up in this Obama euphoria, and that America was ready to start electing African-Americans to higher office and that he was going to be swept in right behind Obama,” Morgan said. Now Obama’s favorability ratings in Florida have suffered. “He didn’t see this. Nobody did.”
Meek is an African-American House member from Miami whose mother Carrie Meek was a pioneering black legislator who for 10 years held the seat he now holds.
No Southern state has elected an African-American senator since Reconstruction — but in a three-way race that precedent may be less relevant.
Meek “needs to win more white Democrats and independents than the polls show thus far,” said Emory University political scientist Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics.
“Most of the white vote will likely be split between Rubio and Crist, with Rubio running ahead of Crist among white voters, and Meek running in third place,” he said. “Meek would have to attract a lot of white support from Crist to win.”
That’s why Florida voters are likely to hear much anti-Crist rhetoric from Democrats from now until Election Day.