Crist to enter race for Senate
By Bill Cotterell
Florida Capital Bureau Political Editor
Gov. Charlie Crist plans to make his long-awaited political announcement on Tuesday, probably setting off a Republican chain reaction by jumping into the race for retiring U.S Sen. Mel Martinez’s job.
"I think Charlie Crist will be the next U.S. Senator," state GOP Chairman Jim Greer said in an interview Sunday night.
"There is a conversation going on in Washington about how to solve the challenges and problems that Floridians are facing and I believe Charlie Crist recognizes that if he’s going to be part of that conversation — if he’s going to be able to provide leadership in solving those problems for people — he’s got to be in Washington and he’s got to be part of that conversation."
Crist’s candidacy has been the least mysterious question in Florida politics. For several months, he has refused to say whether he would seek re-election or run for the Senate, insisting that he was solely "focused on Florida" through the legislative session.
But the session ended Friday and former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami last week announced his own Senate candidacy with a statewide splash that drew significant attention in GOP circles. Rubio is appealing to the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, casting himself as a reliable critic of spending and social policies put forth by President Obama’s Democratic administration in Washington.
Crist has drawn flak from some in his party for accepting federal stimulus money and appearing with Obama in Fort Myers. But polls have consistently shown "the people’s governor" — as Crist dubbed himself in 2007 — with two-thirds approval ratings, or better.
With Crist running for the Senate, a scramble for the governor’s mansion is assured. The entire Cabinet is likely to run, thus opening up statewide races for those posts, and some Florida members of the U.S. House will probably bid for governor or Cabinet seats, giving Florida one of its most hectic non-presidential election years.
Greer said Crist’s announcement on Tuesday will be "a low-key event" in Tallahassee, but that it will draw immediate endorsements by a wide range of state and national Republican leaders. Greer didn’t say so in an inverview, but Crist backed Martinez for the Senate in the 2004 primary, so he can probably count on the senator to return the favor.
Attorney General Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson of Satellite Beach, along wih U.S Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp of Fort Myers are likely GOP contenders for governor. But Greer said he will try to discourage a vigorous primary contest for governor and Cabinet seats, to save money and help with unity in November.
"While primaries are good, there are times that to be sure we in the general election, Republicans have to come together and avoid costly and very detrimental primaries," said Greer.
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami and state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, are seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate. There are no major Democratic contenders for governor or Cabinet seats yet, but Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink is expected to run — having waited, like the Republicans — to see what Crist would do.
Greer, a close friend of Crist’s, said the governor consulted his wife, Carole, and remained involved in the legislative session before turning to 2010 politics.
Since Martinez made his surprise announcement that he would not seek a second term in the Senate, several top names in both parties — including Republican former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello — considered the race and shied away. The last governor elected to the Senate was Democrat Bob Graham 23 in 1986.
The Democrats have fallen on hard times since then, losing both chambers of the Legislature, a majority of the congressional delegation and all elected statewide offices except Sink’s and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s. But Obama easily carried Florida last year and the Democrats have touted unity and grassroots field organization.
Greer said 2010 won’t be easy.
"I think the Democrats are going to be formidible but I also think there is great weakness among the announced candidates for Senate on the Democrat side, especially running against Charlie Crist," said Greer. "He has extremely high approval ratings among independents, Democrats and likely Republican voters."
Crist was a state senator from Pinellas County for six years and lost a U.S. Senate race to Graham in 1998. He briefly worked in a state executive post under Bush, then was elected education commision in 2000 and attorney general in 2002. He was elected governor in 2006 with Kottkamp as his running mate.