Whole New Game: Crist’s Likely Independent Bid Makes FL-SEN A Strange, Unpredictable Race

Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL) is widely expected to announce at 5 p.m. ET today that he will leave the Republican primary for Senate, and continue running for Senate as an independent. This move, which has been rumored for some time, will seriously shape a Senate race in a big perennial state, and could very well make this the most intriguing race of the year.

A three-way race of this variety is very tough to predict, to put it mildly. Republican candidate Marco Rubio could win with an energized right wing. Crist could pull out a win from his moderate stances and personal popularity with his own base. Or Democrat Kendrick Meek could win if Crist and Rubio split the Republican vote.Crist started out as the seemingly prohibitive frontrunner a year ago. Republican Sen. Mel Martinez was retiring after one term, and the party establishment coalesced around Crist’s candidacy as a popular governor. (Martinez later resigned his term early, and Crist appointed a long-time ally, George LeMieux, to the seat.) However, Crist’s support for President Obama’s stimulus package — and his having actively campaigned alongside Obama himself for the bill — seriously undercut Crist’s credibility with the newly-rising Tea Party right. Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio has since been able to build up a huge lead in the polls for the GOP primary, seemingly shutting Crist out of the race.

But as it turns out, Crist appears to have another option. The TPM Poll Average for the Republican primary gives Marco Rubio a lead of 59.1%-27.9% over Crist, the opposite of where things were a year ago. Meanwhile, the poll average for a three-way general election only gives Rubio a narrow lead with 33.8% of the vote, followed by an independent Crist at 27.8%, and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek with 22.5%.

When asked for comment on today’s expected news, the Rubio campaign pointed us to this strategy memo they posted yesterday, which argues that Crist will simply fall by the wayside: “Marco and Meek will have the wherewithal to become better known. Republicans will react to Charlie’s switch. Democrats will be introduced to Meek. And voters from both parties will begin to gravitate back to their respective camps. Furthermore, Independents really only know one candidate right now. And that’s not going to remain true for very long either.”

A source close to Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee, told TPMDC that the campaign is optimistic about today’s upcoming developments. “The campaign is thinking that this actually effectively makes us the frontrunner,” the source said, “that despite the current polling, which is actually too early to have any legitimate representation of what’s going to happen on election day, what it’s going to do is split the more conservative vote, and Crist will keep enough of his Republican followers and some independents, that it gives Kendrick a real shot at winning the race. And we think it makes us the real frontrunner at this point.”

How much attention has the Meek campaign given to preparing for this news, we asked? “It’s been a pretty heavy focus of what everybody has been doing since the rumor started seriously floating,” the source said. “We’ve been focused on getting ready to deal with it, and make sure that in the announcement we don’t get lost, and make sure that people know there’s a Democrat in this race, and that Crist abandoning the party isn’t going to help him get a bunch of Democratic votes.”

A Republican source in Florida said that with Crist seemingly about to bolt the party, a key change in the race will be that the party will be able to solidly back Rubio, instead of the official neutrality that has existed up until now. “Qualifying in Florida ends tomorrow,” the source explained. “So if at the end of the day tomorrow, Marco Rubio is the only Republican candidate in the race, we would all move in the direction of supporting the campaign and Marco Rubio as the Republican candidate.”

Could Crist potentially win, we asked this GOPer? “I don’t think that he would be making the switch if he did not believe that he could win. So I think the answer to that has to be yes,” the source said. “He’s won enough elections to know what it takes to win. And as a politician he wouldn’t be making the switch, he wouldn’t be making all of these difficult changes, if he didn’t think he could win.”

We asked the GOP source what steps were being taken to run against Crist, and got an amusing answer: The Florida GOP is making preparations to rewrite their political literature, to remove Crist. “The governor is the elected head of our party, so just from a logistical standpoint, in terms of a lot of our printed materials, our website, some of the branding that we’ve done, and things like that, we really have to go back and reevaluate,” said the source. “We don’t want to presume what the governor’s announcement is going to be. All signs point to him leaving the party, so all the preparation we’ve done from a logistical standpoint is going back and seeing what changes need to be made, seeing as the sitting governor will no longer be a member of our party after today.”

Professor Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia told us that a three-way race is tough to predict. “It all depends on who attacks whom, and who has the resources to attack, and when, and of course real developments during the campaign can have a tremendous impact,” said Sabato, also adding: “And look, it’s not clear who would attack whom first, because each candidate has very, very different goals now that they see 37, 38 percent potentially being he winning percentage, which I think it very well could be.”

Sabato explained the likely goals of the candidates: Crist will lack an official organization and find it harder to raise money — instead, he must leverage his credibility as the sitting governor toward portraying himself as the sensible choice between Rubio on the right and Meek on the left. Rubio must mobilize his energized GOP base, and Meek must mobilize his own Dem base in the hopes of benefiting from a fairly close, split Republican vote.

The bottom line, Sabato emphasized, was that a candidate will not need a majority in order to win: “When you throw a significant independent in, who can get over ten percent, you do change the dynamics, and obviously the percentage needed to win.”