Is Charlie Crist The Next Moderate GOPer On Right-Wing Hit List?

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November 3, 2009 10:21 am
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No matter what the final outcome, the NY-23 race has changed the game for Republican primaries. Conservatives across the country are now in a search for the next Dede Scozzafava, the establishment GOP nominee Conservative party candidate Doug Hoffman was able to defeat by convincing rank-and-file Republicans to leave the candidate their party’s leaders had chosen.

In Florida, Marco Rubio’s campaign says conservatives have found their new Dede in Gov. Charlie Crist.Gov. Charlie Crist was expected to walk away with the race when he declared his intentions to run for the state’s open Senate seat earlier this year. The popular Crist has a broad base in Florida that extends to some Democrats, and his fundraising prowess is unmatched.

For a national GOP looking for an easy win in a state that went for President Obama, on paper Crist was perfect. And in due course, the national GOP signed on. NRSC chair John Cornyn actually recruited Crist to run, and immediately backed his bid when he finally did. Crist lived up to the expectations — he broke all past Florida fundraising records in his first quarter as a candidate and built up big leads over likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Kendrick Meek, in early polls.

Throughout the summer the fly in the national GOP’s ointment in the race was Marco Rubio, a former state House speaker with well-established conservative credentials who entered the Republican primary a couple of weeks before Crist got in. Rubio picked at Crist’s public support for Obama’s stimulus and earned some national support from elements of the party’s right wing, like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC). But large conservative groups like the Club For Growth stayed away, citing Rubio’s low fundraising numbers and poor showing in polls.

That started to change in the past few months, after Rubio raised over $1 million and local activists started handing him victories over Crist in county GOP straw polls across Florida. Polls began to tighten in the GOP primary as well, with Rubio closing to within striking distance of the once-untouchable Crist. Rubio earned more public support, too, singing Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) to his side, and he grabbed headlines and national media appearances as Crist’s once-legendary support appeared to be more fragile than most national observers originally thought.

Rubio officials expect that support from national activists will ramp up now that conservatives have NY-23 under their belts.

“What you’ll find tomorrow is a lot of conservatives will look around and say, and say ‘where else is this happening?'” Rubio spokesperson Alex Burgos said in an interview today. “A lot came together essentially at the last minute in New York 23. In our case, it doesn’t have to be that way. This is a campaign and a candidate that conservatives can get behind early and have an effect.”

Rubio has already benefited from the example set by the Hoffman campaign. Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) called out Cornyn yesterday on Facebook, claiming the NRSC chair’s support for Hoffman but not Rubio was “kind of ironic.” Rush Limbaugh is on the air these days making the connection between NY-23 and the Florida Senate race, too.

What’s more, Rubio already has the backing of Dick Armey, the former House Republican Majority Leader who played a big role in Hoffman’s campaign in New York. Armey was among Rubio’s earliest national supporters and it’s likely he’ll turn his attentions back to Rubio now that the Hoffman bid is done.

And more big name national conservatives are signing on. Earlier today Erick Erickson at RedState.com said that he’s ready to bring the “conservative revolution” in northern New York to the warmer climes of Florida. “#NY23 is our Lexington,” he tweeted. “And FL-SEN is Concord.”

Burgos says it’s not certain that Crist will be the conservative movement’s next Scozzafava, but he said Rubio forces have been “excited” by the NY-23 race and expect that whatever happens there tonight will give Rubio a big national boost. The campaign has a new website aimed at reminding national conservatives of Crist’s past support for Obama’s stimulus, featuring the pair in what appears to be close conversation. The site, CharlieAndObama.com, launched today — just as conservatives began looking for their new NY-23.

“That photo is symbolic of not just Crist’s willingness to embrace the stimulus,” Burgos said. “It’s also a willingness to embrace a number of Obama’s policies conservatives have a problem with.” Burgos said the list included cap and trade and “higher taxes.”

“I wouldn’t call it vindication,” Burgos said when asked if NY-23 made him want t give an “I told you so” to all the national party leaders who rejected Rubio’s bid. “But it shows we’re not alone in this. [NY-23] is a pretty prominent race where a conservative has stuck to his guns and done well. It’s the same way with Marco. A lot of people left him for dead but he never lost sight of his conscience.”

“We’re hoping that once the job is finished in NY 23 folks will look to this race as the next stop,” Burgos added.

As for Crist, even Democrats are saying he’s in real trouble in the state he was once expected to win handily.

“It’s very possible that Charlie Crist will lose the Senate nomination in Florida,” former DNC chair Howard Dean said in an interview with TPMDC today. “Actually I think it’s likely.”

The Crist campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Late Update: Crist campaign adviser Eric Eikenberg called TPMDC after our story posted. Here’s what he said in response to conservatives preparing to land in Florida:

Comparing NY-23 and the Florida Senate race is “apples and oranges,” he said. “They’re reaching a little too far on this one.”

Scozzafava “is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and a liberal fiscally,” he added. “Crist’s record is a conservative record. It’s a lot about nothing when they try to make the comparison.”

Eikenberg said that when national conservatives get a good look at Rubio, they’ll see he’s no Doug Hoffman. “I’m not sure they’re aware of his record,” he said. “The issue for us is that it needs to be explained.”

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