It was the biggest piece of thoroughly unsurprising news in months: Charlie Crist is becoming a Democrat. The next expectation is Crist will announce a campaign for Florida governor. He’s tanned, rested and ready after two years at a high-profile law firm and anyone who follows his career has a hard time picturing Crist out of public life forever. But the Florida Republicans’ prince-turned-pariah is no lock to win a Democratic primary against the likes of Alex Sink, let alone a general election against Gov. Rick Scott, who can pour tens of millions of his own money into a reelection campaign. A Crist candidacy has pros and cons. Here are five reasons why the former governor should run again and five reasons why he shouldn’t.
FIVE REASONS HE SHOULD
RUN FOR GOVERNOR
1. Democrats need a winner. Tired of losing, Florida Democrats are so hungry for some real influence in state government that they will cut Crist slack for his blatant opportunism and overlook some of his more strident conservative stands.
Yes, President Barack Obama won Florida twice in a row, but Democrats have lost the past four gubernatorial races and now hold just one of six statewide offices. The ultimate prize for party-building and fundraising is the Governor’s Mansion, and Democrats only have to see how relentlessly the Florida GOP has attacked Crist for months to realize how seriously it views him as a threat.
A sizable chunk of the Democratic primary electorate won’t trust Crist, so the more crowded the primary, the better for him. So far, it looks like a crowd with potential contenders including former Chief Financial Officer Sink, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, former state Sen. Nan Rich of Broward County, state Sen. Jeremy Ring of Broward and former Miami-Dade Commissioner Jimmy Morales. But all would have to spend millions to become known statewide.
2. The Democratic coalition. Trial lawyers and teachers are two critical groups to bankroll a statewide campaign, and Crist is uniquely positioned to win over both. He works for one of the state’s most prominent trial lawyers, John “For the People” Morgan, and teachers praised Crist even when he was a Republican governor for vetoing a controversial teacher merit pay bill.
Crist also has wide support in the party’s most loyal constituency, African-Americans. They appreciated his outreach and his expansion of the attorney general’s power to prosecute civil rights cases and a decision, overturned by Scott and others, to make it easier for ex-felons to regain their civil rights so they could vote.
3. Obama. Crist has to be the president’s favorite Florida politician. He was one of the few Republicans to enthusiastically endorse Obama’s $700 billion stimulus package, and Crist was all over Florida this election season stumping for Obama. He raised between $100,000 and $200,000 for the president’s reelection campaign and spoke at the Democratic National Convention. At the moment, “the hug” looks pretty good.
And Sink? Right after her narrow loss to Scott in 2010, she told POLITICO the “tone deaf” Obama administration was to blame for her loss. “They got a huge wake-up call two days ago, but unfortunately they took a lot of Democrats down with them,” Sink said.
Obama and senior political advisor David Axelrod have lavishly praised Crist, and it’s likely they would be eager to help him win America’s biggest battleground state. Another big Crist fan: Bill Clinton, whose wife may be keen on having a Democrat lead Florida heading into 2016.
4. Crist’s strengths magnify Scott’s weaknesses. In some stylistic respects, Crist and Scott are polar opposites. Crist is a great communicator who exudes warmth. Scott is aloof and struggles to connect with everyday people.
Whether or not voters view Crist as a principle-free opportunist, he is a poster child for civility, compromise and bipartisanship. Scott has forged a reputation as a partisan ideologue, coveting the support of tea party activists and belatedly embracing more money for public education.
“I don’t know why anyone is not a Republican,” Scott told a Republican gathering over the weekend.
5. Crist’s DNA. He has an all-consuming desire to hold elective office. If he wants to return to it, there may be no better time than now — against an unpopular governor and fresh off helping Obama win reelection.
FIVE REASONS HE SHOULD NOT RUN FOR GOVERNOR
1. Too much explaining to do. Does Crist really want to spend 18 months constantly explaining why he said his role model was Ronald Reagan? Called himself pro-life? Advocated chain gangs for prisoners? Supported a ban on gay marriage and prayer in public school? Signed a bill allowing people to bring guns into the parking lots of the workplace?
Then there’s his once-cozy relationship with former GOP chairman Jim Greer, awaiting charges of defrauding the party of about $200,000, not to mention a couple of Crist fundraisers who went to prison. Crist is an opposition researcher’s dream.
2. It’s not his party. Crist gives long-suffering Florida Democrats the illusion of leadership, but he’s a repackaged Democrat, not the real thing. He’s a drug for some Democrats desperate for relevance and would enable the party to avoid the much harder work of rebuilding from the ground up.
3. Revs up Republicans. First he tried to destroy GOP hero Marco Rubio in their 2010 U.S. Senate primary. Then he threw himself into re-electing Obama. Many Republicans are lukewarm about Scott, but nothing would motivate rank-and-file Republicans in 2014 than the prospect of burying the man they view as a turncoat.
4. Walked away. Crist abandoned the job of governor once before. Assured of reelection in 2010 at a time when Florida needed leadership the most, its economy cratering under the Great Recession, Crist put himself first and decided to run for U.S. Senate. Not to mention, he spent a big part of his gubernatorial term angling to be John McCain’s running mate.
Republicans already are noting that Florida bled jobs while Crist was in charge and gained jobs under Scott.
With a thin record of accomplishment, does Crist deserve his old job back?
5. Too risky. Early polls show Crist either losing to or running neck-and-neck with Sink among Democratic primary voters and essentially tied with Scott among general election voters.
If he loses a 2014 governor’s race, he will have lost three statewide campaigns: one as a Republican (for U.S. Senate in 1998), one as an independent (U.S. Senate, 2010) and one as a Democrat.
That’s the negative hat trick in Florida politics — three statewide losses.
Be patient, Charlie. Make some more money at Morgan and Morgan. You’re 56, and ultimately 81-year-old U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young will retire. Winning a congressional seat in your home turf is a much easier lift than running statewide again — and possibly losing.