Gov. Charlie Crist got a taste this past week of what he can expect for the next 67-odd days as the race for the United States Senate careens toward a dramatic conclusion.
Crist was attacked mercilessly by the Kendrick Meek and Marco Rubio campaigns after he committed his first major gaffe since announcing he was against Sonia Sotomayor: a flip-flop-flip on healthcare — telling a Florida TV station he would have voted for it had he been in the Senate, then retracting that and saying he misspoke, since his original, Republican position — not to mention the position on his new, “no party affiliated” website, says he’s opposed… plus he wrote a letter to Rep. Meek back in the day, asking him to vote no… (Michael Hussey at PushingRope offers an alternative explanation for the flipping here.)
The agonizing reflects Crist’s unique, and complicated, position in this race. He is currently holding most of the Democratic support, which Meek is determined to strip from him. And sure, it would be nice for Democrats to point out every so often that Rubio’s positions, on everything from Social Security to immigration to tax cuts, are tea party extreme, the party’s goal is to boost Meek, and that means rendering Crist irrelevant to Democrats by reminding them, over and over again, of what a good Republican he was. For his part, Rubio’s interests like in boosting Meek just enough that he and Crist split the Democratic vote, neutralizing the Democrats’ 60,000-plus voter advantage, while tanking Crist’s credibility with whatever Republicans are still with him, and with independents, leaving them open to even a far right candidate like Rubio. The Meek strategy got underway this weekend, with the campaign me-tooing a recent Rubio effort by sending out a robocall to 500,000 Democratic households on which Crist, back in 2006, called himself a “consistent conservative.” And the party has plenty more where that came from (the ad in which Crist praises Sarah Palin is surely on its way.)
Crist’s dilemma is serious enough that Nate Silver, who has put the Florida race into the likely Indie column, meaning it favors Crist, to question whether FiveThirtyEight’s forecast model might overestimate Charlie’s chances. (BTW, the site can now be found on the New York Times servers, at fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com.)
So in this election, it’s “Operation: Get Charlie” — on both sides of the aisle. And Crist has to walk the finest of lines — being just Democratic enough for the Democrats, but not too Democratic for his remaining GOP base (hence his refusal to say who he’d caucus with in the Senate, though the smart answer is probably, whoever’s in the majority next January…)
Crist does have some Democratic support. Just Sunday morning, he got the endorsements of two South Florida Democrats: State Sen. Maria Sachs, Delray Beach, and State Rep. Darryl Rouson from Crist’s home region, Tampa-St. Petersburg. Rouson in particular is an interesting “get” for Crist. He’s African-American and just won his primary with the endorsement of Alex Sink.
But Meek has a strong claim on Democratic support, not just because he handily won his primary against billionaire opponent Jeff Greene (even crushing Greene in his own precinct,) but because of the way he fought for the nomination this summer — the opposite of the lackluster campaign he waged for 15 long months before Greene got in. And not for nothing, but Meek is not just the only major African-American candidate on the Democratic ballot in Florida this year — he’s the only major black candidate on the ballot in the entire country. With the black vote being key in November, establishment Democrats walk away from him at their peril.
And yet, none of that may matter much if Democrats aren’t convinced that Meek can actually beat Rubio in November. If instead, he continues to poll like a spoiler, rather than a contender, Democratic voters may stick their fingers in their ears, ignore Crist’s flip-flops, and go with him as the electable “anybody but Rubio” candidate. In fact, both the Crist and Meek camps will be waiting for the next major polls to come out with what should be eager anticipation. If they show Meek getting a significant bounce out of his primary win, and Crist falling into Meek’s old teen territory, Meek will be able to draw more enthusiastic base support, and money. If, however, Crist is still solid, and Meek is still weak, Crist may be able to put the blinders on and try to ride out his “people’s candidate” wagon all the way to November, flip-flops be damned.