Marc Caputo: How Charlie Crist lost the summer

08/03/2014 4:31 PM

08/03/2014 7:08 PM

Charlie Crist lost the summer.

The Democrat started his campaign in the fall with a bang, a double-digit lead in some polls. That margin has whimpered into a tie with Gov. Rick Scott, a result of the Republican’s mammoth ad campaign ($20 million since spring!).

But Democrats are privately grumbling that Crist, too, bears some blame. His campaign is buzzless to many Democrats.

Flat.

Meh.

Were it not for Scott’s self-inflicted wounds and likeability problems, Crist would look doomed right now and Democrats would be in full-blown panic mode at the beginning of August.

Instead they’re just nervous. Just like Republicans are about Scott.

“There’s worry,” says a top South Florida Democratic fundraiser and Crist supporter. “There’s not much excitement right now with Charlie.”

Blame three major missteps:

THE DEBATE DEBATE

A Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrcat with a complex record of centrist-oriented deal-making and rhetorical flip-floppery isn’t the stuff of which Democratic dreams are made.

Crist had a golden opportunity to gin up more energy in the Democratic primary against longtime liberal Nan Rich, a former minority leader in the state Senate. Instead, he was “disrespectful,” in Rich’s words, by completely ignoring calls to debate her.

Rich supporters say Crist is scared of her. He’s not. He’s more scared of himself.

A populist, Crist loves the crowd. He plays to it. If past debates are any measure, he plays to the theme of the debate. As a Republican in a 2006 primary, he was a rock-ribbed conservative. In the general-election debate later that year, he was an across-the-aisle guy.

Chances are slim that Rich could have beaten the former governor, even with an “elevated” profile of a debate that few would watch anyway. Crist still said no.

Crist doesn’t want to define himself just yet. So the 2006 Republican candidate — who called for 12 GOP primary debates — wanted zero in his new party as a Democrat. But he blasted Scott for only accepting three general election debates.

“Rick Scott limiting debates to three is a disservice to voters,” the debate-ducking Crist said as un-ironically as possible.

Scott responded: “It’s hypocrisy at the highest level. Either one is too many. Or three is not enough.”

Hang on, says Crist World. Scott’s a hypocrite, too, for not debating his primary opponent Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder.

But there are numerous differences between Rich and Cuevas-Neunder, who’s ignored by the state GOP, which long ago launched a field organization dedicated to reelecting Scott.

THE PARCHED GRASSROOTS

Crist’s campaign field team was late starting. That’s partly because he couldn’t rely on the Florida Democratic Party, which sat on the sidelines amid the primary with Rich. Crist World blames … drum roll … Rich for this as well.

So even Crist World admits the different party primary candidates are of a different ilk.

When it comes to hard work on the ground, Rich’s grassroots outreach schedule blows Crist’s away, judging by the emails from the campaigns. Every week, Rich seems to be meeting and speaking to three or more Democratic clubs and activist organizations.

Crist is busy raising money from the elite (primarily trial lawyers) and, compared to Rich, dispensing with regular appearances at grassroots clubs.

In some ways, Crist is repeating his performance in the GOP in 2009 and 2012. He eschewed meeting with grassroots Republicans, ignored them. His U.S. Senate opponent, Marco Rubio, didn’t.

As a Republican or Democrat, Crist isn’t really suited for the extremes of party primaries. He’s a generalist, a centrist, a deal-maker. He’s not a partisan ideologue.

In 2010, by the time Crist paid attention, it was too late. He soon left the GOP to try to win the Senate race. That failed too. Rich 2014 is no Rubio 2010.

But Crist 2014 is looking a lot like Crist 2010.

THE BLACK ROOTS

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, left this message last month on Crist’s cellphone:

“You cannot win this election without a large black turnout.”

It was true for President Barack Obama in 2012 when he won Florida by less than a percentage point. African Americans accounted for 13.6 percent of Florida’s registered voters, but they cast about 13.9 percent of the ballots in that race.

Compare that to Hispanics, who were 13.9 percent of the overall rolls but cast about 12 percent of the ballots.

The Florida Hispanic vote also fluctuates, backing Obama 60-39 percent in 2012, but essentially splitting its 2010 support between Democrat Alex Sink and Scott (thanks largely to Miami-Dade Cuban-American Republicans).

African Americans, by contrast, are solidly Democratic, backing the party’s nominee with more than 90 percent of the vote.

So for every 10 blacks who cast ballots, Crist can likely count on 9 votes. The higher the black turnout — especially compared to Hispanic voters — the disproportionately more Crist will benefit.

The math is even clearer in a midterm election, because Hispanics disproportionately stay home when compared to blacks and non-Hispanic whites and blacks.

Crist passed over some black running mates and picked a Hispanic, Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairwoman Annette Taddeo, partly to counteract Scott’s choice of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami-Dade property appraiser and legislator.

“Since Crist did not select an African-American running mate, some folks in the Black community have questioned whether Crist and the Democratic Party have taken Blacks for granted,” the Blogging Black Miami website wrote recently, noting that Crist does care about the African-American vote. Crist, for instance, has opened a field office in Liberty City. And he enjoys black support.

Rep. Hastings said he would have preferred Florida Senate Democratic leader Chris Smith, an African American. But he admires and strongly supports Taddeo.

Still, he said, Crist needs to do more to court the black vote.

“You need to identify the highest two positions and a third that you can appoint if you’re elected governor,” Hastings said he told Crist and Taddeo. “And of two of those positions you should announce now — just as you did with Annette — that you are going to appoint an African-American male and an African-American female.”

That was two weeks ago. It hasn’t happened.

Meantime, a shadowy out-of-state “progressive” group funded days of radio attack ads bashing Crist, who didn’t respond with his own paid media that pointed out his record supporting civil and voting rights.

“Charlie Crist Is No Friend to African-Americans in Florida,” Luther Campbell, the rapper football coach-columnist recently wrote in New Times, focusing on Crist’s past support for Republican policies from guns to education.

Crist has been disciplined with his money and only recently began firing back on TV against Scott. But in black media, a little money — $100,000, say — goes a long way. And with $10.8 million cash on hand, Crist could have spent something by now. He hasn’t.

Crist intends to spend big, yet the clock is ticking. That’s worrying Henry Crespo, president of Democratic Black Caucus of Florida.

Crespo, who’s also Hispanic and had strongly advocated for Crist to pick Taddeo, said he hopes Crist will do more and do it quickly. He said he fears that Crist, advised by seasoned Obama campaign hands, is forgetting a major difference between Crist and Obama.

Obama is black. Crist is white.

“I can see that,” Crespo said. “My daughter can see that. Ray Charles can see that!”

So far, though, Crist can’t.

About Marc Caputo

Marc Caputo

@MarcACaputo

Marc Caputo is the Miami Herald's political writer. Hailing from Key West, he graduated from the University of Miami.

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