Bruising fight seen for Senate
Crist expected to announce today, setting off a political scramble
By Joe Follick
Published: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 11, 2009 at 9:58 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE – The frenetic political career of Gov. Charlie Crist is about to make another jump as the popular governor will likely announce today that he will run for the U.S. Senate in 2010, setting up a primary showdown between his moderate vision of the Republican Party versus that of an up-and-coming conservative.
If so, Crist will become the first governor in modern Florida history to leave office after his first term without running for re-election. It would mark the fifth campaign for four different positions since 1998 for Crist, 52.
Speaking at a Tallahassee nursing home Monday, Crist declined to confirm his decision.
"Let’s see what tomorrow’s announcement brings," said Crist, at Westminster Oaks for National Nursing Home Week.
The visit was identical to a campaign stop, with Crist shaking hands of residents and workers as an office display scrolled the words, "Hello, Charlie!!!!!!"
But a number of Crist’s closest friends said the decision will come today with a low-key rollout, absent the usual fanfare for such a major announcement.
Perhaps in a bow to a gloomy legislative session that raised $2 billion in fees and taxes for the state’s upcoming budget, Crist is expected to offer a press release today and skip the traditional fly-around that kicks off a statewide campaign.
Crist’s move sets up an ideological brawl with former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Senate primary. Rubio and Crist agreed on little when the two men were at the top of Florida’s political structure.
Rubio, a charismatic conservative from Miami who has enjoyed former Gov. Jeb Bush’s praise, pushed for major property tax reform and balked at Crist’s push to deepen the state’s risk in property insurance.
In a statement Monday from Rubio campaign manager Brian Seitchik, the tone was set for a bruising battle.
"Given the huge problems facing Florida right now, I am surprised Gov. Crist is already thinking about hitting the campaign trail and heading to Washington," said Seitchik.
"Between an unsigned budget, dire budget projections and cuts, mountains of pending legislation, the unsolved insurance crisis, the ongoing mortgage and housing disaster, historically high unemployment, struggling schools and a 2009 hurricane season just weeks away, this is hardly the time for the governor to cast his eyes toward greener pastures."
Crist brings a uniquely amiable and moderate air to the race that has made him a national symbol for those seeking to pull the Republican Party to the middle.
Equally reliant on counsel from Democrats as well as Republicans, Crist has touted his approach to work with both parties as a needed tonic for a Republican Party scarred nationally by last year’s election beating.
His decision sets off a cavalcade of campaigning not seen in modern Florida history.
All of the three other state officials elected statewide have expressed an interest in the governor’s seat, making Cabinet meetings for the next 15 months a de facto campaign appearance for all four.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, seems likely to run for the governor’s office. Republicans Bill McCollum, the attorney general, and Charles Bronson, the agricultural commissioner, may also enter the race.
Crist’s popularity has defied political wisdom and the collapse of the state’s economy. His signature moves have had mixed results at best.
A successful push for voter approval of Amendment 1 in 2007 allowed residents to keep accrued Save Our Homes tax benefits when they move, but has not had an effect on the dismal real estate market.
His bashing of State Farm insurance and the resulting reliance on state-run Citizens Property Insurance to cover coastal properties has been ripped by both parties. And his deal to buy land from U.S. Sugar to save the Everglades has stalled and been downsized.
Still, most polls show a 70 percent approval rating among Floridians for Crist, and his fundraising prowess set records in the 2006 gubernatorial race. Crist would serve the remainder of his term as governor should he run for Senate.
Jim Greer, handpicked by Crist as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Monday that the party will back Crist in the primary.
"It’s my job to see that we have a winning candidate in the general election and there’s no doubt in my mind that Charlie Crist with his approval ratings is the candidate we need in the general election," said Greer.
The move would not be without risk.
His re-election as governor was likely and a campaign with Rubio may exploit increased wariness from the party’s conservative wing.
"Some people are very unhappy with him," said Richard Scher, a University of Florida political science professor and gubernatorial historian. "You wonder why he’s giving up a sure thing."
But the simplest explanation for Crist’s decision is as plain as his résumé. Since he lost a 1998 race for the U.S. Senate to popular Democrat Bob Graham, Crist has successfully run for education commissioner, attorney general and governor in the span of six years.
"If there’s a seat Charlie can find that takes him upward rather than downward," Scher said, "he’ll go for it."