Former Governor Charlie Crist’s ride as the presumptive Democratic nominee began smoothly with a seeming coronation and a few months of “Charlie-mania” among Democrats but has now descended into a less than secure place. Certainly Crist will be the Democratic nominee for Governor barring a “summer surprise” of catastrophic proportions, but it has become obvious for some of us that have observed the former Governor for years that he has lost his footing recently. Whether this is entirely his fault is open for discussion.
Confidence was one word I would use to describe Governor Crist in his days as a Republican. Having watched him up close during his statewide runs in 2000 and 2002 he was never lacking in politically savvy answers, self-confidence or an upbeat looking body language. His messaging was always positive, a sunny side up look at Florida and the state’s challenges. A self-proclaimed Reagan Republican, Crist was generally cheerful in his rhetoric while being tough and firm on more troubling issues. Despite many in his party deriding him as a “lightweight” he always connected with voters, both in tough primaries and less competitive races against generally woeful Democratic candidates. In 2006, I did not interact with Crist as much on the trail but his messaging was clear and positive to see from a distance. Crist’s performances on the stump, in debates and one-on-one were “Morning in America” like. While most Democrats didn’t support him, many myself included begrudgingly admired his skills.
In stark contrast, Florida’s Democrats have long been the whiny party of “no.” Anti-Republican, anti- Jeb Bush and anti-Rick Scott. Florida’s Democrats have been almost unwilling to engage with positive policy solutions for our state’s problems, instead opting to constantly play defense and criticize Republican officeholders. The Democrats in Florida lack a coherent ideology and instead simply can be described as “anti-Republican.”
While it is important Democrats adhere to progressive principles, almost no effort has been made except by individual legislators to stake out ground where the party can be successful politically and constructive from a policy perspective. My hope was that with Crist now a Democrat and essentially the titular head of the party for better or for worse, that the Democrats tact would change and become more solution oriented- however it has as of yet not happened.
Instead what has been obvious to some of us who have watched Crist through the years is that he is not as confident in what he is saying, not as positive in his rhetoric and his body language lacks the self-assurance it did in his previous statewide races, even his 2010 loss to Marco Rubio for US Senate. Crist continues to lead Governor Rick Scott in the polls, but I and several people I have spoken to feel his confidence is shaken and the old Charlie Crist has gone missing.
Governor Crist is essentially a positive person. Those of us who have interacted with him through the years know this. I first met Crist in Tallahassee during the 1995 Legislative session and instantly took a personal liking to him, even though politically I had issues with his views. I continued to like Crist personally, while disliking many of the Republicans in this state both personally and politically. I will admit that I have cast a ballot for Crist in the past, making him the only Republican at the state level I have ever voted for in twenty plus years.
Now however, Crist seems defensive all too often when speaking to the media or at public events. His words seem less thought out or poll tested than previously and sometimes he just says silly things, the sorts of things he rarely if ever said in his runs for office as a Republican. The well-programmed superstar candidate of the past has given way to a jumbled and conflicted candidacy. In fairness though, I am not sure this is entirely the fault of Governor Crist.
One cannot help but think that this crisis in confidence is less due to Crist himself and more due the Democratic Party. Crist as a seasoned candidate and office-holder probably does not know where the Democrats stand on issues other than defense of Obamacare (because the Democrats themselves don’t have a positive message to articulate for Florida) and has yet to find his feet in ways that please the Democratic base, while expanding the potential general election vote for himself and the rest of the party’s statewide candidates.
Some of the people I have talked to about my observations agree but feel Crist is more to blame than the party. Democrats after all nationally stand for a broad set of progressive principles that Crist should be articulating they argue. But I would counter that the last three Democratic Gubernatorial nominees ran on a hodgepodge of different issues some of which lacked consistency and others of which were clearly tied to the interest groups that support the party financially. This reiterates the fact the Florida’s voters know what the GOP in this state stands for and will do in office, but the potential election of Democrat is shrouded in mystery from a policy perspective.
This election cycle provides Democrats with an opportunity to reach out to disaffected Republicans, particularly young professional GOP women and those concerned about economic security. Charlie Crist based on his record and his ability to connect with ordinary Floridians would have a good opportunity to reshape the narrative and bring new voters to the Democratic side.
Florida Democrats need to recover from the worst 15 years in the party’s post Reconstruction era history. Since 2000, Florida Democrats have the worst record in state elections of any major political party east of the Mississippi River. Charlie Crist is supposed to be part of the solution to this problem. Or perhaps his candidacy if it fails will further marginalize the Democrats statewide, allowing the GOP to cement their already dominant position. Come November we will know one way or another.