After close loss, Charlie Crist reflects on what might have been

Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist waves to the crowd of supporters after delivering his concession speech Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 in Tampa.
Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist waves to the crowd of supporters after delivering his concession speech Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 in Tampa. AP

Charlie Crist is disappointed but not angry.

A day after losing to Gov. Rick Scott by about 1 percentage point, Crist reflected in a 20-minute interview with the Herald/Times on what might have been.

“It looked pretty darn good,” he recalled after seeing the first statewide returns on CNN at St. Petersburg’s Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

Crist was seeking a comeback as a former Republican governor-turned-Democratic champion of the working class, and says he wouldn’t have done things differently. He knows his supporters feel let down. He wants to remain relevant in politics, which won’t be easy after a third statewide defeat, and is open to running for office again.

Crist is convinced that his chance for victory slipped away when Scott and his wife wrote four checks last month for $12.8million to buy one last blast of negative campaign ads in a dead-heat race.

One ad claimed Crist and liberal climate-change activist Tom Steyer had a “secret plan” to increase taxes on Floridians, which Crist advisors called an outright lie.

“I wish I had a bigger bank account,” Crist said.

At 7:13 p.m. Tuesday night, soon after most polls had closed, CNN flashed a graphic showing Crist ahead 60 percent to 36 percent with 14 percent of the vote in. It was a rout in the making that prompted at least one Scott backer to consider leaving the governor’s election night party in Bonita Springs before it became a wake.

CNN’s numbers looked like a snapshot of partial early voting that heavily favored Crist. It didn’t last.

Scott crept closer and closer and then grabbed a lead he would not relinquish, forcing Crist to confront a simple fact: He trailed by about 85,000 votes with 50,000 votes uncounted in his strongest county, Broward, where turnout, as usual, lagged behind the statewide average.

That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Florida Democrats assembled their biggest get-out-the-vote effort ever for a midterm election and they focused on South Florida, home to about one-third of the state’s Democrats.

“I’m so proud of what our people were able to put together,” Crist said. “I don’t know what it would have looked like without that.”

Thousands of Crist volunteers worked to create a different outcome for Democrats.

Joanne Goodwin, who ran a phone bank for Crist in Pompano Beach, said she was “devastated” by Crist’s loss, the fifth straight time Democrats have lost a race for governor dating to 1998.

“It’s really people who are just not motivated to vote. Democrats did this to themselves,” Goodwin said. “I don’t think he let people down. I think the people let him down.”

Crist refused to second-guess his strategic decisions. He said he doubted that visits by President Barack Obama would have helped him because his presence also might have roused a lot more voters in conservative areas where Obama is most reviled.

Some Republicans said the party rank-and-file’s intense dislike of Crist and his party-switching past motivated more of their voters.

“People said, ‘We’ve got to get this guy,’” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Crist joins a select club with a dubious distinction: Florida politicians who have lost three statewide elections. Crist lost U.S. Senate bids in 1998 and 2010.

Others who did so quickly faded into oblivion, including Bill McCollum, Tom Gallagher, Bill Gunter and Jack Eckerd.

Crist said the loss stings.

“While it’s painful, I’ve felt this before. It’s not unprecedented,” he said. “My real disappointment is for all those people.”

For Crist there will be no transition team, no celebratory TV appearances, no grand plans for an inauguration. Instead, he and his wife, Carole, will escape to a quiet vacation spot, Useppa Island, off Florida’s southwest coast.

“I’ve got to recharge the batteries,” he said. “I left it all on the field.”

Later, he said, he’ll look for a way to stay active in politics and “help the quality of life for Floridians. That’s enough for me.”

He said he went back to his St. Petersburg headquarters on Wednesday and shook hands with a man working on a loading dock.

“I realized, he’s never going to receive a minimum wage increase,” Crist said.

Advisors said they were surprised at how Crist dealt with such an agonizing defeat.

“He’s still a happy warrior,” said former state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, who would have been a key advisor in Crist’s administration.

“You put your heart and soul into something like this,” Crist said. “But I’m fine. I’m fine. The sun came up today. This too shall pass.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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