Major Democratic financial backers, including trial lawyers and teachers, are gushing about Charlie Crist and his prospects for 2014. Crist has not announced plans to run for governor again, but polls show him trouncing Republican Gov. Rick Scott by double digits.
The lifelong Republican-turned-Democrat at this point looks like he could grab the Democratic nomination without even a serious challenge.
But oh-so-quietly, veteran Democratic fundraisers and strategists across Florida worry about another scenario: A Charlie Crist train wreck that would ensure a second term for one of America’s most-vulnerable Republican governors.
The wariness and even downright hostility to Crist’s candidacy is part of what’s fueling speculation about Sen. Bill Nelson entering the race.
Scott may have anemic approval ratings, the thinking goes, but he will have tens of millions of dollars to turn his challenger into an unacceptable alternative. In Crist, 56, who walked away from the governorship three years ago and is now aggressively re-inventing himself, Scott would have loads of material to work with.
“It’s a difficult sell for a candidate who was governor, who left governor to run to be the Republican senator, to now come back and say he wants to be the Democratic governor,” said former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith. “Charlie Crist may very well be able to explain that to people’s satisfaction, but it becomes the focus of the campaign. … As soon as the election becomes focused on the challenger, rather than the incumbent, I think the challenger is in trouble.”
Nelson, 70, has repeatedly dismissed the suggestion he might run for governor, but enough Democrats have spoken to him about it that he is considering it.
He is said to be leaning against the idea, but is not expected to make a final decision at least until the fall.
2014 could be Democrats’ best opportunity to rebuild the party in a generation. But in taking on a governor vowing to spend $100 million on his re-election, some Democrats worry they will bet the house on Crist and wake up homeless after Election Day.
Angst about Crist’s ability to beat Scott, 60, is common among Democratic money-raisers, but many are reluctant to say it publicly because they don’t want to antagonize the candidate already poised to become standard-bearer for Florida Democrats. Those who raise concerns do it diplomatically.
“I know Gov. Crist has had a spiritual journey and has found many of his past positions are not positions he now feels comfortable with. However, that journey is a public record and it is something we will have to defend if he is our nominee,” said Mitchell Berger, a top Democratic fundraiser and lawyer from Fort Lauderdale.
Former state Sen. Nan Rich of Broward County announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination months ago, but shows little sign of traction.
The doubts about Crist’s ability to win have prompted prominent Democrats to talk to Nelson about running for governor. Nelson, who withstood tens of millions of dollars in third-party attack ads last year against U.S. Rep. Connie Mack III to easily win a third Senate term, would not have to resign his Senate seat to run for governor.
Among those who says he encouraged Nelson to run? Crist’s boss and top cheerleader, John Morgan, the trial lawyer whose Morgan & Morgan TV ads blanket much of Florida. Morgan and Nelson discussed it over dinner at Luma in Winter Park in February, but Nelson was non-committal.