The expected announcement Tuesday by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist that he’s running for the Senate would seem to be a rare bit of good news for beleaguered Republicans.
But while Crist is a brand-name recruit with sky-high approval ratings and bipartisan appeal, his path to keeping the seat of retiring Sen. Mel Martinez in GOP hands has at least one significant roadblock: Sunshine State conservatives.
Despite Crist’s widespread popularity, he faces a primary in which he will have to make his case to a restless GOP base dissatisfied with his high-profile advocacy for President Barack Obama’s stimulus and his handling of the state’s budget woes.
And he will be facing a vigorous fight from former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a young, outspoken Hispanic conservative who is capturing the attention of activists in Florida and across the country.
Rubio began telegraphing his attacks against Crist even before the governor’s formal announcement. In an interview with POLITICO, he singled out Crist for abandoning conservative principles and compared the governor to moderate Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
“If we’re offering the same thing as the Democrats, but with different packaging, what’s the point in having a Republican Party?” Rubio said.“I’m going to offer Floridians a clear, consistent, authentic small-government choice in the primary.”
Indeed, Rubio expects the primary to receive national attention as a referendum between the party’s moderate and conservative wings. He just received a glowing profile in the Weekly Standard, which called him the “perfect recruit for statewide office.”
Florida GOP operatives believe that Rubio has the potential to be a formidable opponent, if he can raise the millions of dollars necessary to compete against a governor with a wide fundraising network in Tallahassee. They acknowledge that knocking Crist off would be very difficult, with public polls showing the governor with approval ratings in the mid-60s and support from Democrats and independents that most Republicans can only dream of.
But they also point to a growing undercurrent of mainstream conservative dissatisfaction, beginning with Crist’s decision to appear at a February rally alongside Obama to raise support for the stimulus. Over the past several months, The Wall Street Journal editorial page has railed against Crist over his plans to control property insurance premiums and his support for higher government spending.
“Crist doesn’t represent a right-wing philosophy or a left-wing philosophy. He represents no philosophy,” said Ana Navarro, a leading GOP fundraiser in Florida who has been one of Crist’s most outspoken Republican critics.
“A lot of Republicans are intrigued by the notion of an articulate, conservative young Hispanic that brings things to the table that the national party so badly needs right now. But the big question is going to be the money. Being governor provides a platform for raising money that’s tough to match.”
A major wild card is the involvement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Rubio mentor who has deep support among many Florida GOP activists and a frosty relationship with his successor. Bush has given no signal of his future involvement in a primary, but those familiar with his thinking don’t expect him to back Crist.
“Jeb is ultimately a party guy, and I’m sure he wants to see the Florida seat remain Republican,” said Navarro. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if he called his top people and told them privately to support Rubio.”
Already, many of the GOP activists who backed Jeb Bush have been in discussions with Rubio. Rubio already has signed up Ann Herberger, one of the lead fundraisers for the Bush family, to head his money-raising efforts.And he has talked with prominent GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos — who worked for Jeb Bush — about working on his campaign.
Navarro noted that unlike other national conservative candidates going up against the party establishment, Rubio has a built-in advantage with his strong standing with the heavily Republican Cuban-American community in South Florida (which makes up about 10 percent of the GOP primary vote). Rubio notably made his official campaign announcement on the Spanish station Univision, instead of an English-language outlet.
One Florida Republican pollster who has surveyed the Senate race said his internal numbers show an opening for a conservative challenger to Crist, citing growing angst among “supervoter Republicans” who are reliable primary voters. The pollster said that any conservative challenger to Crist could start out with as much as one-third of the GOP base vote.
“Crist’s supporters have always been a mile wide and an inch deep,” said the pollster.“You put almost anyone in a primary, there’s almost an automatic 35 percent of base voters who will vote against him. There’s incredible frustration about the supervoter Republicans, who tend to be more conservative.”
Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, a leading Crist supporter, disputed those numbers and said the governor continues to have the widespread support of Republicans and independents alike. He said criticism is coming from a small but vocal subset of disgruntled conservatives.
He added that the party is likely to endorse Crist, which would allow it to expend resources on behalf of the governor in the contested GOP primary. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee is expected to endorse Crist after he announces his campaign, according to a senior Hill operative, the first time it has taken sides in a competitive GOP primary.
“The one thing a primary like this provides for is an opportunity to find out what’s important to the voters and what’s not,” said Greer.“Charlie Crist has always been successful in focusing on the issues that are important to voters and not getting bogged down in issues that are of little interest to Floridians.”
Crist backers also plan on pointing to issues on which Rubio backed the governor during Rubio’s tenure as speaker to undermine claims that the two are that far apart ideologically.
But among the activists that make up the party’s core, the differences between Crist and Rubio are seen as stark.
Former Brevard County GOP Chairwoman Cynthia Handley, a longtime GOP activist who chaired Jeb Bush’s campaigns in the county, said there’s no way she’s voting for Crist — in a primary or in a general election. And she said she encounters that sentiment regularly when she meets with other activists in her area.
“I’m not talking about radical right-wing Republicans. I’m talking about normal Republicans, normal conservatives,” said Handley. “They just think he’s more of a Democrat than he is a Republican.”
I actually agree with the more right-wing elements of the party that it's totally inappropriate for the party's Senate campaign committee to endorse a candidate, especially a non-incumbent. People got angry at Howard Dean for being so hands off in '06 but look what happened there. Let the people decide. On the other hand, I don't think Rubio is as great as his supporters think, and it's pretty shitty if Jeb Bush is trying to kneecap Crist.