A full year of negative campaigning starts as Charlie Crist bids for governor

The Sunshine State will be a dark place for politics over the next year.

On Monday, just before former Gov. Charlie Crist officially announced his bid for his old job, Gov. Rick Scott’s political committee officially unveiled its first negative ad attacking his predecessor as untrustworthy.

Crist gave more than he got when he took the stage in St. Petersburg.

“Governor Scott has led like this,” Crist said from the stage. “Embrace the ideological fringes, take care of his friends, bully his opponents, hide from the public and the press and run from tough issues.”

A Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, Crist also pointed out that Scott’s former hospital company once paid a record $1.7 billion Medicare-fraud fine.

Republicans hit back quickly, hosting a conference call with Crist’s former friend and adviser, George LeMieux, whom Crist tapped to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat before 2010. LeMieux said Crist is now “unrecognizable to me.”

One day down, 364 more to go for a campaign. Election Day is Nov. 4, 2014.

The pervasively negative tone — far earlier than any recent previous governor’s races — carries more risks for Democrats than for Republicans.

Negative campaigning can depress turnout, studies show, and smaller turnout elections generally favor Republicans in Florida; polls indicate Crist would handily beat both Democratic candidate Nan Rich and then Scott right now.

Scott plans to spend upward of $100 million through his Let’s Get to Work political committee, which now has about $16.9 million in the bank. His advisers are considering whether to help support Rich, a former state senator from Weston, to help scuttle Crist’s nomination.

Rich said she’ll take all the help she can get. But she lamented the negative Crist-centric tone that has already beset the campaign.

“The unfortunate thing is negative campaigning works,” Rich said. “I want to talk about the issues…. My beliefs are stable. I’ve been a Democrat for 12 years in the Legislature and long before that. Crist will have to explain his beliefs.”

The latest ad from Scott’s committee quotes numerous Democrats calling Crist an untrustworthy “opportunist.”

“He has done nothing to create jobs, his only core belief is personal ambition,” the ad quotes former Florida Democratic chair Karen Thurman as having said.

Crist, who never mentioned Nan Rich in his speech, plans to remain competitive with Scott by tapping some of President Barack Obama’s donors. Crist already has surrounded himself with the president’s Florida advisers and pollster.

“He’s trying to bully me by waving around his $100 million checkbook,” Crist said Monday. “I don’t have their special interest checkbook.”

But Crist did in 2010, when the then-Republican governor ran for Senate and tapped a passel of special interests in the state Capitol to fund his campaign, from sugar companies to now-convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein. Crist, while he was a Republican, also had a reputation of running negative ads as well.

Crist made no mention of that part of his past on Tuesday and instead pointed out that Scott took contributions from the likes of a politically influential insurance company that was then granted a “sweetheart deal” by Citizens Property Insurance.

Before Crist even announced, a Republican Party of Florida strategist filed an elections complaint that alleged Crist unlawfully created and displayed a campaign logo before filing his campaign paperwork.

Crist said Scott and his former party had nothing positive to boast about.

But Republicans pointed out that Crist’s last year in office coincided with the collapse of the economy. In contrast to Scott’s term, Florida’s unemployment rate increased from 3.5 percent to 11.1 percent under Crist. Florida is now a job-growth leader.

Crist’s 2010 rival, Sen. Marco Rubio, drew the distinction in a written statement that the Republican Party of Florida issued later in the day.

“Rick Scott has proven himself very capable of cleaning up after Charlie’s mess, creating jobs, and restoring Floridians’ hope about the future,” Rubio said.

At this pace, though, the future of the campaign doesn’t look like an exercise in appealing to Floridians’ hopes.