Charlie Crist’s Shadow Hangs Over A Desperate Democratic Party

As Florida Democrats gear up for the 2012 Election cycle, the most talked about name in party and activist circles is not a current member of the party, but in fact a longtime former Republican officeholder. No question exists that Charlie Crist, wrongly counted out before by the political establishment of both parties, remains a heavyweight in Florida politics and the desperation of a party that hasn’t developed its own bench of quality candidates or a definitive statewide brand identity may lead to a shotgun marriage in time for the 2014 election.

The Democrats have lost 13 of the last 14 statewide races for Governor or Cabinet offices, a record which is comparable to that of rock solid Republican states like Utah and Idaho and worse over the same period as traditional GOP strongholds like Wyoming, Montana, Kansas and Arizona. It is logical and perhaps admirably pragmatic that a desperate party that has failed to properly train or promote a “farm team,” would turn to a proven statewide vote getter to try and regain a foothold at the highest levels.

Crist is perhaps the savviest politician in the state. In 1998, he wisely challenged unbeatable Democratic Senator Bob Graham but used the race to get his name out. In 2000, he ran for an office that was being abolished within two years, Commissioner of Education in order to further his name ID statewide. It was in that race, while running several counties for the Democratic nominee, George Sheldon, I observed Crist’s unique qualities on the stump and one on one with voters. Previously, I had been highly tainted by the Tallahassee crowd I worked with, many of whom viewed Crist as a perennial lightweight and  in some cases a figure comedy. That same crowd mocked Crist’s Attorney General credentials noting he had failed the Florida Bar exam multiple times and that the establishment GOP primary candidates (Senator Locke Burt and Solicitor General Tom Warner) were more qualified to be the state’s top law enforcement officer. Crist beat both of them and Democratic nominee Buddy Dyer, handily, demonstrating incredible political skills and an uncanny grasp of voters concerns in the process. Fast forward to 2006, and many Bush loyalists displeased with Crist’s performance as Attorney General,( where he played populist and shifted position frequently) opposed his nomination but he won both the primary and general election with ease.

For the first time in Crist’s career, he hit a brick wall in 2009 and 2010 as National Republicans and assorted right wing pressure groups coalesced behind the candidacy of Marco Rubio for US Senate. Given Crist’s ability to change political positions and ideology on a dime, both Crist and many elected Democrats wisely sensed an opportunity but bumbled and stumbled all over its execution, leaving a US Senate seat in the hands of the dangerously ideological and telegenic Rubio. In hindsight, Rubio may have been unbeatable in a partisan GOP tide, but any chance the Democrats or Crist had of stopping him were blown early on, and what resulted was damage to Democratic morale and divisiveness throughout the state.

To doubt Charlie Crist was once a partisan Republican is foolhardy, and would involve a significant re-writing of history. In 1995, as State Senator he held up Governor Lawton Chiles most critical appointments until the final day of session for strictly political reasons. The same year he initiated a Senate investigation of campaign calls made by the Chiles campaign. In the long history of political campaigns, dirty tricks have been conducted over and over again. In the very same election GOP nominee Jeb Bush accused Governor Chiles of being soft on crime while shamelessly exploiting the family of a murder victim in a TV ad. But it was Chiles that was accused of dirty tricks by Crist in a politically motivated investigation which cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.

In 1996, he helped lead the Republican opposition to Governor Chiles landmark lawsuit against the Tobacco Industry and then a year later, Crist conducted another partisan witch hunt, this time against the attorney’s who bravely represented the state in the Tobacco Lawsuit. By 1997, Crist was firmly viewed within the halls of the Legislature as a show horse and a partisan. But beginning with the aforementioned 1998 US Senate race, Crist began a transformation from partisan Republican to political pragmatist who felt the pulse of Florida’s electorate.

For almost 15 years Crist has been for lack of a better term a populist. In this day and age populism can mean anything from Rick Santorum’s attacks on snobs and intellectuals, or Dennis Kucinch’s attacks on war mongers. But for Crist, populism is simply reacting to the nuances and anger of Florida voters, be it on gas prices, insurance rates or education cuts.

Perhaps Crist can help define an ideology for a Democratic Party that in Florida lacks any coherent message or policy vision other than attacking Republican officeholders and  in some cases trying to distance themselves from National Democrats.  Simply put, many Florida Democrats do not understand the state’s voters and the need to formulate a positive policy agenda even though throughout in the period since 1998 when the GOP has won 13 of 14 statewide offices and approximately 65% of contested Legislative elections, the Democrats have held a significant statewide registration advantage.

Last week, David Axelrod gave the following commentary to the Tampa Bay Times:

“The president has a very high regard for Gov. Crist. He made a really courageous decision back in 2009 and there’s no doubt that he made it because he thought it was what was best for the state of Florida. He understood the politics were difficult and he made it nonetheless. He deserves enormous credit for that and the courage he showed. You know we all talk about that we want public officials who are willing to put the next generation ahead of the next election and he was willing to make a decision like that. So we admire him.”

In plain English, the top Democrats in the nation are now mirroring the actions of many local partisan officials in trying to coax Crist to become a Democrat. Maybe this is the type of pragmatism Florida Democrats need to recover from the worst 15 years in the parties post Reconstruction era history. Or perhaps this will further marginalize the Democrats statewide, allowing the GOP to cement their already dominant position. Only time will tell.

35 thoughts on “Charlie Crist’s Shadow Hangs Over A Desperate Democratic Party”

  1. This article raises several valid yet troubling issues. The article is also slanted.

    Crist most certainly was a partisan when the GOP had fewer talented officeholders having been a minority party for years in the state and he saw that as quick way to climb.

    His actions as Attorney General and Governor were that of a moderate in tune with the voters. The article states that but also seems to imply that was simply for political gain. But actually, it jeopardized Crist’s standing within the GOP, so he was being courageous.

    As far as the performance of the Florida Democratic Party, they have been below poor. The article very correctly points out that our performance here has been comparable to the most right wing states in the country even while we have carried this state legitimately in three of the past four Presidential campaigns. The FDP is dominated by nickel and dime politicos who do not understand the state and hail from a time when they did not have to work to win elections or be in the majority. They have never learned how to be an opposition party.

    But perhaps Crist and the GOP deserve credit for moving to the middle and forcing the Democrats led by bumbling idiots to play defense. Crist as the article notes attacked the Democrats when they had the Governorship and one of the two house of the Legislature with great zeal and effect. Bringing Crist into the Democratic Party can only help create a message while giving us our first truly attractive statewide face in a decade. We are searching for a voice and he can help us find one.

  2. I should also point one inaccuracy in the article = Locke Burt had establishment support in 2002 but Tom Warner did not.

    The article implies both were backed by the GOP Establishment. If anything, the GOP hierarchy, Insurance and Big Sugar were committed to seeing Burt through but Crist was a safer alternative to Warner, a clear liberal Republican.

  3. You criticize the party for losing too much without mentioning the partisan gerrymandering that caused it and then in the sane breathe criticize the Ds for recruiting someone who may win. Hypocrisy!

  4. Then explain how the Dems lost the State House and Senate in the 1990s, when the Democratic Party was in charge of redistricting (holding both houses)?

  5. We lost it then as you say but we would be back at 50-50 at least if it weren’t for that reapportionment. Karen Thurman and Rod Smith have helped bring us back. We are winning most of the big races now.

  6. Or, let me rephrase…which big races, or races in general, are we winning that directly have to do with the sole efforts of the Florida Democratic Party? Not the DNC, DCCC, DSCC…but the FDP.

  7. We’ve won the Jacksonville and Tampa mayoral elections under Rod Smith. The groundwork was laid under Thurman to go after municipal seats. This site has lauded Buddy Dyer but he is a local official. We are coming back where the seats are not rigged.

  8. I find it most ironic that the same Democrats who belittled the Republicans for running “that stupid Charlie Crist,” every time he ran quickly embraced him after he became Governor. When you consider the losing track record if many state Democrats it is not hard to understand what deal was cut. Some politicians and political consultants were promised access to places they never could gp because they always lose. So goes the Democrats in Florida.

  9. Really? Those are the two races that you can come up with?

    Let’s look at Tampa first. The last Republican to be Mayor of Tampa was Bob Martinez. That was an election in 1983. So winning a race in a seat that we haven’t lost in nearly 30 years is a “big deal”? I don’t see it.

    As far as Jacksonville, that was an upset, I will admit. But the Florida Democratic Party spent $527,000 on that seat. Really? The mayor’s race in Jax was THAT important? Also, just throwing money at an election doesn’t show me any “skill”. Any party or organization can do that.

    See, what you are saying is exactly the problem with the Democratic Party in Florida right now. We pick up one mayoral race and we are patting ourselves on the backs, giving high fives, and acting like we just kicked the Republicans into the Stone Age.

    The Republicans are laughing their asses off at us right now because we look at insignificant wins like these as “big races”. No, big races are for Governor, CFO, Attorney General, State House and Senate control, and working with the DNC and DCCC to gain a few Congressional seats. Those are “big races”.

    Again, our party has very little ambition. It is like we celebrate every first down in a football game, but are losing 70-3.

  10. Everything the article says about the Dems failures avoids the fact that it was the fault of national campaigns Gore,Kerry and Obama for coming in and not leaving anything behind. They spent money but did not leave the infrastructure or even voter data they had captured. We start from scratch every two years. The GOP does not work this way.

  11. So, like others, shifting the blame to someone else? Again, like I said in another article….”the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.” Just shifting the blame doesn’t do it. The DNC does their thing. The DCCC does their thing. The FDP does nothing.

  12. Would you rather continue to lose or win with Crist? I think this is a savvy FDP move and the national party and Clinton is to blame for Meek running last time.

  13. I agree it is a good move. But even so, the fact that the FDP can’t recruit good candidates and have to look at people like Crist to run isn’t promising. We can’t rely on half of the GOP to change parties so we can have them run as Democrats. There still needs to be some fundamental structural changes to the party. Crist becoming a Democrat should be considered a “gift” and nothing more.

  14. Gator Democrat

    Rod Smith should be the clear choice for Governor in 14. He is leading the party back and had he been the nominee in 06, Crist never would have been elected. Smith will win back the dixiecrats in the panhandle and conservative democrats in the interior. He will campaign in all 67 counties. The party will come hone if he’s the nominee. Sadly several south Florida democrats are courting Crist further dividing our party.

  15. Actually on the contrary. The national campaigns have left an infrastructure behind but the FDP has made activists angry with the constant efforts to “moderate” and ti nominate “electable” candidates who do not fire up the base.

  16. The GOP won 77 house seats in the 2000 election out of a possible 120 in seats drawn by the Democrats.

  17. Jacksonville was a great victory, but Tampa and other big city mayor’s races are like scoring an empty net sitter in soccer. The vast majority of contested races in this state are won by Republicans. That is a fact over the past 15 years.

  18. I worked for Smith in part of the primary in 2006. The North Florida strategy never made ANY sense. It is not merely about dixiecrats and ideology but you need to go where the voters are. Polk County not excatly an urban county has more registered voters than the entire Big Bend region. Volusia and Brevard do also. We are not even talking about major urban counties, but suburban/exurban and oartly rural ones. If you are going to go fishing, dont go where the fish actually are, not to a tiny pond filled with feeder goldfish.

  19. Are you kidding? We cannot consistently win some seats that were conceded to us in the last redistricting. What happens in the future is in our control, and hopefully we can turn this around.

  20. I am sorry but comparing Democratic performance in Florida to that of Utah and Idaho shows what an imbecile you are. Did Obama or Clinton win those states or even
    come within 25 points there?

  21. No, that is the point! We EXPECT Obama to lose Utah and Idaho! But we don’t expect them to lose Florida. It is a “purple” state! As someone that actually attended University of Utah and live in Salt Lake City for years (as well as being the National Committeeman for the Young Democrats of Utah), I can tell you that their local organization is much better than ours, and they are fighting an uphill battle. He are on the hill, but have the car in neutral without the parking break on. That is the point, we SHOULD be winning Florida and we aren’t!

  22. That is the entire point. Why is the performance of Democrats in statewide Florida elections for cabinet or governor similar to that of Democrats in Idaho and Utah and worse than those in Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, etc. It is really quite embarrassing and this malaise in the state party has been evident since the mid 1990s and the bleeding still hasn’t stopped. Why are their Legislative districts that consistently give GOP Legislative candidates 10-15% points more than they do the GOP Presidential or US Senate nominee? This is the issue above all.

  23. Point well taken. I was actually speaking specifically of Locke Burt. Warner did have some establishment support in the Florida Bar and Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers but certainly not among GOP partisans.

  24. The real problem is that Florida’s Democrats never learned how to be an effective minority party. Too many were first in denial about the election wipe outs of 1996, 1998 and 2000 even while national democrats were winning Florida and still cut deals and acted like they were Governing. This set a precedent for new “leadership” of the party which in many cases was recycled old leadership to fit into an accommodating mold with the majority Republicans. I hate to say this but we need our own bomb throwers, our own members who are willing to risk never passing a bill to make clear distinctions between the parties. In Florida we have reached the place where the National Republican Party was from 1954 to 1994 onwards regarding cutting deals with the Democrats in Congress and allowing their ideology to be trampled. But in many of those cases Republicans had a President to work with so even they were stronger than the current Florida Democrats.

    Tony, blaming Gore and Obama for this is like blaming Clinton for the Iraq War. You are inventing history.

  25. So the state party deserves zero credit for our wins in US Senate, Congressional and Presidential races? That makes ZERO sense.

  26. Maybe somebody should finger our Dem electeds for abandoning our party, recruiting Republicans to run as Democrats and being spineless.

  27. They deserve minimal credit for the success in Presidential years. I’ve seen how it works up close and personal. The state party receives tons if cash from the DNC and field help from well trained young staffers. Florida is literally inundated with smart, savvy politicos.

    In off year elections, the FDP is left to their own devices and usually fails miserably to raise money effectively to compete with the GOP and also to properly organize on the grassroots level. That is addition to having no statewide agenda or policy platform.

  28. Florida Voter

    I love how fair weather Democrats who long ago quit being in the trenches and started lobbing missiles at our hard working party leaders. We won Florida for Obama and won the toughest races in 2006 and 2008. The unpopularity of Obanacare in Florida cost us in 2010. We are having trouble now because Obama has moved left and the fight is for centrist votes. We need to put distance b/w us and the national party in order to survive. Crist helps us do that.

  29. No one is arguing about whether Crist is electable or not. He’s the most battle hardened and savvy potential Democrat in the state. The issue here is the inability of Florida’s Democrats to adopt a cohesive and comoelling message to appeal to voters, to properly hone and turn out our base and the general ineptitude and reactive nature of our campaign operation. As far as “Obamacare” as you refer to it, it is about time we delivered basic universal Health Care access nationally. What is the point of a progressive movement and a Dem party that should be in the spirit of FDR/Truman/JFK/LBJ etc if we don’t deliver on those sorts of issues. I’m sorry but Florida’s Democrats unwillingness to embrace the Affordable Health Care Act and other aspects if the national platform explains more to me why we lose than the reverse as you claim.