Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has just officially announced that he is leaving the Republican primary for Senate, and is instead running in the general election as an independent.
“My decision to run for the United State Senate as a candidate without party affiliation in many ways says more about our nation and our state than it does about me,” said Crist, at a rally in his hometown of St. Petersburg. “As someone who served the people in Florida more than 15 years, from the state Senate to the governor’s mansion, I can confirm what most Floridians already know. Unfortunately our political system is broken. I was never one who sought to hold elective office to demagogue, to point fingers. For me, for me, public service has always been about putting the needs of our state and our people first. And every single day, as your servant, I have tried to do exactly that.”
It has been a long and strange journey from a year ago, when Crist was a popular Republican governor with a seeming lock on his party’s nomination and the Senate seat itself.
Crist’s speech was given in the face of certain defeat in the Republican primary after he angered the party’s base. It was somewhat reminiscent of the speech give by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) after he continued as an independent candidate when he lost his 2006 Democratic primary, and also similar to Sen. Arlen Specter’s (D-PA) speech when he left the Republican Party in 2009. Crist said that he was not leaving this big decision, of who would be Florida’s Senator, up to a narrow primary electorate, and that he wanted a better tone in Washington.
“Now I could have chosen to stay in the primary, but frankly for me, it’s your decision. It’s not one club’s decision or another, or even a club within that club. It is a decision too important, it is a decision for all the people of Florida to be able to make,” said Crist. “And so that’s why we go straight to November, we give you the chance to make that decision. It’s your decision to make. Now I know, I know this is uncharted territory. I am aware of that. And I am aware that after this speech ends I don’t have either party helping me. But I need you, I need you the people more than ever. And I guarantee you, I’m counting on you. I’m counting on you, and I believe in you. And you can believe in me, and I’ll be with you forever — forever.”
One year ago, Republican Sen. Mel Martinez was retiring after one term, and the party establishment coalesced around Crist as a popular governor who could easily retain the seat. (Martinez later resigned his term early, and Crist appointed a long-time ally, George LeMieux, to the seat.) However, Crist had a major weakness: His support for President Obama’s stimulus bill, and his having campaigned for the bill alongside President Obama. Former state House Speaker Marco Rubio successfully built on conservative resentment against Crist, in the age of the Tea Party right, to overcome Crist’s lead in the polls.
The TPM Poll Average for the Republican primary gives Marco Rubio a lead of 59.1%-27.9% over Crist, the opposite of where things were a year ago. Meanwhile, the poll average for a three-way general election only gives Rubio a narrow lead with 33.8% of the vote, followed by an independent Crist at 27.8%, and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek with 22.5%.
The Crist campaign is reportedly giving partial refunds to donors who want their money back, as a result of his independent bid.
As we explained earlier today, anything can happen in a three-way race like this. Rubio could win with an energized right wing. Crist could pull out a win from his moderate stances and personal popularity with his own base. Or the Democrat Meek could win if Crist and Rubio split the Republican vote.
There’s really no easy or obvious prediction of what will happen next. Instead, there is only one way to find out.