TALLAHASSEE — Rep. Charlie Crist switched parties almost a decade ago — but the party has moved on.
As the former Republican prepares a potential bid to unseat Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the 64-year-old Crist must somehow convince skeptical Democrats that he can energize the diverse coalition that now makes up the party.
“I don’t think he excites the part of the base that we need to propel a statewide campaign,” said Thomas Kennedy, a newly-elected member of the Democratic National Committee from Florida. “I don’t think a former Republican governor — who has lost statewide before and, quite frankly, hasn’t been at the forefront of the battles that have roiled this county in the last four years — is going to be able to take on what’s going to be a really tough race against Ron DeSantis.”
Crist, a two-term congressman who served as the state’s governor more than a decade ago, hasn’t officially jumped into the race. But he’s reached out to political consultants, major donors such as famed attorney John Morgan, long-time friends like Broward Mayor Steve Geller and other politicians about whether he should try to reclaim the job he once held. Along the way, some of his past allies are beginning to work with other potential Democratic candidates.
When asked whether he’s the right candidate for now, Crist retorts: “I got two words: Joe Biden. Look at what happened in our last election.”
Though Biden managed to win the Democratic nomination and presidency, he lost to President Donald Trump in Floridax, and the GOP picked up both congressional and legislative seats in an election that some view as evidence that Florida is losing its reputation as the nation’s largest battleground state.
Crist’s political evolution over the past three decades has shown he is a survivor. As a Republican, he went from state senator to attorney general to winning the governor’s race in 2006. Part of his ascent included a tough-on-crime persona that earned him the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie.” He was seen a rising star and was even mentioned as a possible running mate with John McCain.
But instead of anticipating the anger that triggered the Tea Party movement, Crist made the ill-fated decision to (literally) embrace then-President Barack Obama and praise him for the stimulus package that was pushed through during the Great Recession. Within a few years, Crist became an independent, lost a U.S. Senate race to Marco Rubio and was briefly out of politics before switching parties and running for governor again.
Crist’s pathway to another statewide election is likely to be much different this time around. Instead of a primary where he is challenged by a lone Democratic lawmaker, he could be going up against a line of contenders, including current Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried.
Geller, a former state legislator and someone who has known Crist since they both were at Florida State University, said he worries that Crist and one or two other centrist candidates from the Biden wing of the party would split the vote and allow a progressive to win the primary only to lose the general election.
“I like Nikki (Fried),” Geller said. “If Charlie is not running, I could easily support her. But I think Charlie’s a stronger candidate because he has run for governor before.”
Morgan, who once hired Crist to work at his well-known law firm Morgan & Morgan and remains a close friend, said he has cautioned Crist that it won’t be easy to knock off DeSantis even if he makes it through a Democratic primary. Morgan said by the time the 2022 elections come around, the coronavirus pandemic may be in the “rear view mirror” and criticisms of DeSantis’ handling of the crisis may lose their sting.
“DeSantis is a cold fish and not warm and fuzzy, but do we need warm and fuzzy?” asked Morgan, who recently hosted Crist at his home in Maui. “I made those arguments to Charlie. What would be your rallying cry? When you are running, you are asking the electorate to fire him for doing a bad job.”
Another long-time friend, Watson Haynes, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League, had no such reservations and cited Crist’s past work at restoring voting rights to felons as just one reason to back him.
“I encouraged him,” said Haynes, who said he called Crist in late January after he began hearing rumblings that he may run. “I told him it would be a great idea.”
Crist cites several factors that he says makes him a viable candidate, including that he lost to incumbent Gov. Rick Scott by just 64,000 votes in 2014. Crist notes the election was razor tight even though Scott substantially outspent him, including infusing nearly $13 million of his own money in the final days.
“We still only lost by one point in a massive election where millions of votes were cast,” Crist said in an interview with POLITICO. “It’s not the most discouraging conclusion. Look if I had lost by 10 or 20 points then — ‘Peace. Out. You are done with this venture.’”
Yet the past accomplishments and narrow loses are still a tough sell, especially to Democrats who recall that he once was a Republican.
Kira Willig, who was a DNC delegate for Sen. Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020, said it’s time for Democrats to move on from Crist.
“I don’t know what vision he represents,” Willig said. “He is from the era that some Democrats still cling to where we think Republican will vote for a Republican-lite on the ticket. He already lost to Rick Scott and didn’t bring out the coalition of voters he needed.”
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.