Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is widely expected to jump into the gubernatorial race in a few days — this time as a Democrat. If he does, he’ll face not only incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott but also some liberal Democrats who are wary of Crist’s candidacy as a Democrat.
Indeed, while Crist is largely seen as the de facto Democratic nominee for governor against Scott, there are still some Florida Democrats on the left who say Crist is only playing a Democrat because that’s the politically convenient thing to do.
“I don’t trust him, he’s an opportunist,” Wendy Sejour, the Precinct Committeewoman for precinct 909 in the Miami-Dade area, told TPM. “I mean he switches party affiliations at the drop of a hat. He hasn’t really espoused any great change in political philosophy. It’s just that it’s more expedient for him to change now and I just don’t feel it’s appropriate to have a Republican at the top of the Democratic party which is what he will be when he becomes the nominee.”
Democratic critics in Florida like Sejour see Crist, a former Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat, as little more than a chameleon who is calling himself a Democrat because that’s the easiest path available to him to be elected to office again. And it’s a strategy that could work; a Public Policy Polling survey released at the beginning of October found Crist leading Scott by double digits in a head-to-head matchup.
Broward County Democratic Party Chairman Mitchell Ceasar, who is something of an institution in Florida politics, said focus on the Democratic race has always centered around who has the best chance of beating Scott.
“The buzz seems to have been from the beginning about who has the best chance to win, who has the best chance to beat Rick Scott,” Ceasar told TPM. “And having nothing to do with either candidate, if neither candidate was in the race that would still be the buzz regardless because that’s also the nature of Florida and it’s been further fueled by national interests.”
Sejour said Crist has to do two things: he has to take more time to prove that he is actually a Democrat and he also has to shed some policy positions he’s held as a Republican and Independent in the past. Sejour listed education and Crist’s support for Common Core educational standards as a reason to oppose the former Republican governor.
Opponents of Crist often mention former state Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich as the preferred candidate to Crist.
“You know, he has a moderate record when it comes to civil liberties and voting rights and that’s fine, but so does Nan Rich,” Sejour added. “Everything that everyone says Charlie Crist is such a great moderate on and has reached across the aisle about, Nan Rich has also done the same thing.”
Rich announced her candidacy for governor 18 months ago, but has lower name recognition than Crist and, even among her supporters, is seen as more of a longshot. Rich also lacks the praise of national Democrats that Crist has enjoyed. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz described Crist as an “attractive” gubernatorial candidate.
The problem for Rich, her proponents say, is that Democrats are eager to beat Scott and Crist has the national name recognition and national Democratic backing that Rich lacks. There may be no better example of this than at a Florida Democratic Party conference on Saturday where the Tampa Bay Times reported Crist could “barely walk through the crowd without stopping to greet, hug and mug for pictures.” Crist, the Florida newspaper reported, even hugged Rich.
The enthusiasm around a governor that Democrats once opposed stems from the view that he’s always been a moderate and moderates are the strongest type of Democrats in Florida, said Susan Smith, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.
“Florida Democrats seem to have this mentality that you have to have a middle of the road approach to win Florida. You have to be from the I-4 corridor,” Smith said. “Heaven forbid you should be from South Florida where the majority of the votes are. It’s just a misguided policy the last three gubernatorial candidates have been from the exact same area of the state and they have not been able to win. I think it’s time to try something different.”
Like Sejour, Smith listed Crist’s support for Common Core as well as gun control and Crist’s support for legislation banning marriage equality and abortion as knocks against the former Florida governor.
“It makes you skeptical when you’ve seen this man go through these transformations,” Smith said. “You’ve seen him be a hardcore conservative when he felt that was the way the wind was blowing. You’ve seen him be the Independent moderate voice when he thought that’s what it took. You’ve seen him change positions — he moderated his position somewhat on gun safety, he is trying to walk down the middle of the road on reproductive choice and you know there is no middle of the road for me.”
Democrats have done much of the dirty work already against a Crist candidacy, Smith said.
“There are all these things in his past that Democrats are going to have to deal with, most of it coming from us,” Smith added. “Many of us were a part of those campaigns against him. How do you forget that? How do you walk away from all the things you said over the years that you thought were true and you still, many of us, believe are true about him as far as what he stands for or what he doesn’t stand for. I’m just thinking he doesn’t have any core beliefs and that’s what frightens me.”
Supporters of the Democratic Crist say he’s evolved over the years and are quick to mention polling in his favor against Scott.
“I’ve run a lot of campaigns against Charlie. I’ve known him pretty well. And you know he was always a difficult candidate to run against because he was good on a lot of our issues,” former Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe told TPM.
Ceasar also told TPM that Crist’s policy positions have evolved over time.
“I mean think clearly on the question I think there’s been a philosophical evolution by the governor and I think that became evident during his tenure as governor,” Ceasar said.
“I tell people that I don’t know whether I’m happier that he’s on my team or I’m on his team,” Poe added. “But I’m happy that it’s developed this way. He’s really our best chance to take back the governor’s mansion since [Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles]. And I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the last couple of years and I’m really convinced of what he can do and what he will do for us.”