A fashionable narrative that has developed among some Florida Democratic insiders since the November 2014 electoral debacle is that Republican-turned Independent-turned Democrat Charlie Crist created the environment for electoral defeat. But when you consider the evidence objectively, Crist almost won the Governorship DESPITE the long decayed statewide infrastructure of the Florida Democratic Party and the failure of many county DECs to do its job effectively.
Crist’s performance owed itself not to behaving like a submissive moderate candidate (though his record might have indicated he wouldn’t be a base-driven candidate) but because he espoused a populist ideology and became a fighter for people and causes. While it will be argued by some that this rhetoric did not match the Crist record as a Republican officeholder, his decision to embrace progressive economic policies and campaign hard in the largest urban counties in the state created a situation where Florida’s top office almost bucked an overwhelming state and national tide.
We have pointed out previously that Crist carried 16 State House districts that Democrats lost in the November election. Currently close to 20% of Republican State House members sit in districts Crist carried in the last election, while ZERO Democrats currently sit in seats won by Governor Rick Scott. Every single seat carried by Crist, but won by Republican House candidates were in urban or suburban areas of the state. The need for Democrats to reinforce base counties and to strongly push ideas that carry bedroom communities that generally vote for the party at the very top of the ticket is critical.
Florida’s political media, for whatever reason, sought to paint Crist as a political opportunist. But in this era of term-limits and single-member districts the vast majority of those elected to state offices are opportunists that are constantly office-shopping. Crist was a publicity hound in the 1990s, a young Republican State Senator with ambition and in a hurry – but as a statewide elected official from 2002 to 2009 he showed the type of independence and leadership that Florida’s brightest Democrats of the 1970s and 80s had demonstrated. In many cases, Crist put the needs of the state and the challenges of our growth ahead of ideological political fights. He sought to heal the wounds of past shameful behavior by the state on the issue of race, and took enormous risks to stabilize Florida’s insurance market. After eight years of Florida being used as a conservative laboratory by his predecessor as governor, Jeb Bush, a certain degree of normalcy and respectability was returned to the office.
Yet when he choose to run against a Governor who is defined by ideological dogma and scandal, both personal and political, much of the statewide press made Crist out to be the bad guy. The media’s narrative was backed up by a barrage of negative ads favoring Scott — arguably the most negative campaign since the infamous 1950 Smathers-Pepper Democratic US Senate Primary.
Thanks to these factors, Crist was defeated narrowly, and almost immediately Florida Democrats began to move on while floating lazy and tired theories about the need to field more moderate candidates and win more votes in rural North Florida. We’ve discussed at length in the last few months why both ideas are flawed and that it would be smarter for Democrats to focus energy on shifting votes in second-tier medium sized counties along I-75 and I-95 then obsessing on how candidates play in the rural counties of the 2nd Congressional District. No need exists to continue this discussion now but Crist can be a helpful figure in some of these places.
This past week, rumors began to float that Crist would consider a run for US Senate. Whether or not this is true, Florida Democrats MUST find a role for Crist. Unlike the milk toast candidates we have discussed in the past, Crist has a real fire on the stump and a personality that today, much like in 1992 when he was first elected to the State Senate, people find engaging and uplifting.
Whether or not Crist runs for office again, Florida Democrats should be doing everything they can to keep him front and center. However, it seems Crist has been relegated to the back benches while figures like failed former FDP Chairman Rod Smith sit on task forces and others with little or no statewide knowledge or experience are asked to play a major role.
Charlie Crist is a real asset for a party that has managed to lose 19 of the last 20 statewide elections where Bill Nelson has not been the Democratic nominee — they would be wise to use him in any way possible.