Florida’s Charlie Crist and Nan Rich: the campaign devoid of a campaign

Charlie Crist has ignored his Democratic opponent for nearly a year, and now voters will decide the soundness of his strategy Tuesday in the party’s primary race for governor.

Crist is expected to roll up a big double-digit victory over Nan Rich, a former state Senate Democratic leader whose lack of name identification was matched by her inability to mount an effective campaign that excited voters or garnered media attention.

Crist refused to debate Rich, focusing instead on Republican Gov. Rick Scott and inflaming Rich and her supporters in the process.

But voters don’t seem to be holding it against Crist, even in Rich’s home county of Broward, where Crist opened a regional headquarters, rented a beachfront apartment and will gather with supporters Tuesday night rather than in his usual place, his hometown of St. Petersburg.

“I like Nan Rich, but I voted for Charlie Crist because he has the best chance of beating Rick Scott,” said Richard Maisel, 76, who lives in Rich’s Weston-based precinct. Maisel said his wife, Janice, also voted for Crist when they cast their ballots at a Broward early-voting site.

Closest to home, Rich has not stirred much enthusiasm. Of the 1,300 registered Democrats in Rich’s precinct, only 59 have cast early and absentee ballots, a sign of low overall turnout in this Democrat-rich county.

Even if there’s a small Democratic turnout Tuesday across Florida, Crist said, he isn’t worried that it wouldn’t indicate the base of the party wasn’t ready to vote for him in the general election.

“The base is excited,” Crist said. “And the base is excited because of Rick Scott. He’s a four-year disaster.”

The state of the Democratic primary race — or non-race — underscores the challenges of Rich’s campaign and the Democratic Party in general.

The last time a Democrat won the governor’s mansion was in 1994, when Lawton Chiles nearly lost to Jeb Bush. Now, the party is about to choose a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat instead of a longtime liberal stalwart.

It’s unclear by just how much Crist leads Rich. The outcome has been such a foregone conclusion that pollsters haven’t surveyed Democratic primary voters, focusing instead on the anticipated general election matchup between Crist and Scott, who now edges the Democrat by an inside-the-error margin of a few points after a massive multimillion-dollar TV ad blitz.

A survey released Friday by a firm called St. Pete Polls found Crist leading Rich 69-19 percent. A Public Policy Polling survey in January showed Crist leading Rich 58 to 16 percent — essentially the same spread as in November, when Crist entered the race.

Crist should win by a 20 percentage-point margin or more, insiders and observers say; if Rich gets more than 40 percent of the vote, it could indicate problems with Crist’s candidacy in the general election.

Would Crist predict his victory margin?

“No,” Crist said. “Of course not.”

A shadowy out-of-state group called “Progressive Choice” chartered a PPP survey that polled the governor’s race, but it refused to release the Crist-Rich numbers. The only figures it released showed that nearly 9 in 10 Democrats wanted a primary debate.

Crist said no. “I’m focused on Rick Scott,” Crist repeatedly says.

Crist advisers and supporters said they wanted to starve Rich’s campaign of oxygen and that they didn’t want Crist to be drawn too far to the left as he faces Scott in a mid-term election.

Crist has absorbed more negative blows from the incumbent than any recent major Democratic candidate. Scott has spent anywhere from $8 million to $11 million on negative ads bashing Crist.

In addition to Rich’s criticisms, “Progressive Choice” targeted black voters — 28 percent of registered Democrats — with $200,000 in radio spots and mailers that played up Crist’s former tough-on-crime nickname, “Chain Gang Charlie.”

Republican state Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon said he has made about two million calls to reliable Democratic voters with prerecorded messages from Crist’s successful 2006 Republican campaign for governor. Then, Crist boasted about being a pro-life, Ronald Reagan Republican who opposed same-sex marriage and supported public display of the 10 Commandments.

In 2010, Crist tried to campaign again as a conservative in his doomed 2010 Senate bid. He left the GOP and became an independent. After helping President Obama’s 2012 reelection in Florida, Crist officially became a Democrat.

Internal Obama tracking polls showed that Crist’s support among black voters shot up with his backing of the president, which began when the then-Republican governor kept early voting polls open in 2008 by executive action. Crist later embraced Obama’s stimulus package, which helped ruin his standing as a Republican.

Bishop Michelle B. Patty, a pastor at a church in Brandon, said before casting her early vote last week that African-Americans know Crist as a result. But they don’t know Rich.

“She doesn’t have that name recognition, and he did the right things for the state of Florida,” Patty said, excusing Crist’s flip-flopping along the way. “He had a revelation that he was on the wrong team.”

Despite Crist’s prior campaign rhetoric, his record as governor was characterized by politically pragmatic centrism and populism. His Republican and conservative critics, especially in 2006, accused him of being too liberal.

Now, his liberal opponent, Rich, accuses him of being too conservative.

The clash between Crist the one-time conservative campaigner and Crist the governor is exemplified in his position over abortion, where he says he’s both “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”

“I am personally pro-life, but I have never interfered with a woman’s right to choose,” Crist told the Miami Herald’s editorial board.

To those who find a conflict between how he campaigned in 2006 and 2014, Crist said his answer was simple: “Judge me by my deeds.”

Rich has been harshly critical of Crist throughout the primary campaign, repeatedly citing his policy reversals on issues ranging from the minimum wage to same-sex marriage to gun control, along with Crist’s refusal to debate her.

She recently dropped two new direct mailings that highlighted her consistent support for abortion rights and reminded liberal voters that when Crist was a Republican, he steadfastly supported the agenda of the National Rifle Association and its longtime Tallahassee lobbyist, Marion Hammer.

“She’s the only candidate running for governor who will stand up to the gun lobby and fight to make us safe from gun violence,” the mailer says.

Florida Democrats have many bad memories about past elections lost in part because they could not quickly unify after a divisive primary. It happened in 1986, helping ensure the election of Republican Bob Martinez. It happened again in 2002 between Democrats Bill McBride and Janet Reno, and again in 2006, when Democratic nominee Jim Davis defeated Rod Smith in a race Crist won in November.

Rich promised she would support Crist if he wins on Tuesday, but she said she resented the fact that reporters weren’t asking Crist if he’ll do the same if he loses.

“I will be out there supporting the Democratic nominee,” Rich said. “I’m a true Democrat, and I’ll support the Democrat.”

But Rich didn’t listen to the advice of Democratic operatives.

They say they told Rich not to open her campaign early, in April 2012 during the presidential race when no one was concentrating on the 2014 governor’s race.

Rich didn’t line up financial support ahead of time for her candidacy or use her position as Democratic leader in the state Senate to establish a network of supporters.

As a result, in her first reporting period, Rich announced raising less than $100,000 between her campaign and her political committee.

Amid her struggles, Rich’s supporters became embittered and eagerly supported and sometimes abetted conservative attacks on Crist — which left a bad taste in the mouths of other Democrats.

By contrast, Crist followed the playbook when he announced in November 2013. By the end of the month, he had raised more than $2.9 million between his campaign and political committee. Rich, over the previous 19 months, had raised about $416,000.

Today, Crist has pulled in about $21 million; Scott has hauled in almost $28 million since November, when he had another $17 million in the bank.

Rich hasn’t even cracked the $1 million mark; and about 20 percent of her money comes from matching funds supplied by taxpayers.

It’s not just tough for Rich to find money — it’s tough for reporters canvassing early voting sites to find Rich supporters.

Crist’s universal name recognition, in contrast to the little-known Rich, was plainly evident at an early voting site in the heart of Tampa’s African-American neighborhoods.

Rosie Brewster, 57, who’s retired and on partial disability from work as a nursing assistant, noted Crist’s past support for making it easier for people to regain their civil rights after they complete their prison terms.

“For me, it will be Crist. I don’t know anything about the other person,” Brewster said as she handed out leaflets for a local candidate at Blythe Andrews Regional Library on Martin Luther King Blvd. in Tampa. “I’m just not interested in anybody when I don’t know their background.”