By Larry Thornberry
CLEARWATER, Florida — Well OK, you can come home gain. But they don’t have to vote for you when you do. Moderate Florida Governor Charlie Crist learned this Monday night.
Save for his time in public office in Tallahassee, Crist has lived most of his life in St. Petersburg, the largest city in Pinellas County. He represented Pinellas in the Florida Senate for six years in the nineties. But in a straw vote Monday night, members of the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee decided by a vote of 106 to 54 that they would rather conservative former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio run for a U.S. Senate seat from Florida than their own Charlie.
In the straw vote, former New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith got 7 votes and two other candidates, who even political junkies have never heard of, got a vote apiece. So Crist managed to get slightly less than a third of the votes in his own county.
The vote was a stinging rebuke, but hardly a surprise. Crist’s campaign has been foundering badly for the past few months. His poll numbers have been tanking as more and more Florida Republicans conclude that Rubio — who has campaigned on themes of limited government, trust in the market, a strong foreign policy, the centrality of the family, opposing cap and trade, and taking it to the Obama administration — is the future of a rejuvenated Republican Party that has decided to take its principles seriously. At the moment, the formerly very popular Crist seems to be a candidate without a base, except for the Republican establishment, which is currently in bad odor with the Republican base.
“Crist is in a flat spin,” said former Pinellas REC chairman Tony DiMatteo of St. Petersburg, and Rubio’s main man in Pinellas. “You don’t recover from a flat spin. And Charlie’s no Chuck Yeager.”
Pinellas County has been a base of support for Crist in the past. Because of Crist’s record of conservative rhetoric, if not accomplishment, in his previous state offices, the Pinellas REC supported him and raised a lot of money for him in his 2006 race for governor against Tam Gallagher.
It was after Crist won the governorship that he “grew in office,” supporting all manner of costly moderate to liberal policies in order to show what an inclusive, big tent, bipartisan kind of guy he was. He whooped up global warming as a major threat and pushed for cap and trade and other costly measures to combat it. He appointed a liberal justice to the Florida Supreme Court. Perhaps most damaging, he campaigned for President Obama’s $787 Billion stimulus slush fund, then later said he hadn’t supported it when the program, and Obama, became unpopular among Florida Republicans. He’s been AWOL on conservative social issues.
All these efforts have made Crist popular with the sort of people who support these sorts of things, to wit: Democrats. Most Florida Republicans are underwhelmed. Many who supported Crist in 2006 feel they’ve been victims of a political bait and switch. They’re not bashful about referring to the new Charlie as a RINO, and some other stuff we can pass over for now.
Crist has tried to recover his conservative bona-fides lately, giving speeches calling on the Obama administration to rein in its spending, even though he was on the administration’s case to open the spending spigots less than a year ago. He’s clammed up about global warming, and about obliging Florida utilities to generate a large portion of their power with “renewable” fuels, a couple of Crist enthusiasms of a couple of years back.
Last night’s straw vote, and those that preceded it, have demonstrated that Charlie’s talking a conservative game is not convincing many Republicans, but has succeeded in establishing a new charge against him, political opportunism. Can you spell c-h-a-m-e-l-e-o-n?
Monday night’s loss makes Crist 0 for 16 in straw votes taken last year and this by Republican organizations, mostly county executive committees. The most active Republicans in the state reject him overwhelmingly. In 16 votes by executive committees in big counties and small, north and south, east and west coast, and in groups from women’s Republicans to college Republicans, Rubio has beaten Crist by a total of 1058 to 108.
What’s rarer than a day in June? Apparently an active Republican who supports Charlie Crist. This can put a guy in a flat spin.
Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa. This column first appeared in The American Spectator. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org