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Crist Independent Bid Could Hurt for Money

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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appears set to run for the Senate as an Independent, but he won’t be legally bound to return the money that he has already raised from Republican donors.

With an Independent bid for Senate by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist appearing to be only a matter of time, political observers and operatives have begun to game out the mechanics of a third-party bid by the one-time darling of national Republicans.

As with everything in politics, the most important consideration at the outset for an Independent Crist will be money.

As of March 31, Crist was sitting on a healthy $7.6 million in his federal campaign account, but he’s going to need every penny of that and more in a race where a statewide media buy will likely cost well more than $1 million per week this fall.

Besides advertising, Crist will have to build a get-out-the-vote operation and gather voter information to microtarget his voters. One operative who has worked on multiple high-profile Independent campaigns said both of those important campaign components — which make up a major part of what party organizations provide — can be bought on the open market, for a price.

But unlike New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), who spent $102 million of his vast fortune to win re-election last fall, Crist can’t self-fund his bid.

In September, a Sunshine State business magazine, Florida Trend, pegged Crist’s net worth at less than half a million dollars, and the governor’s tax returns from last year list his income in 2009 at about $130,000.

As a Republican, Crist has been a record-setting fundraiser, but he will face a unique task in trying to attract money without access to the donor network provided by a national party infrastructure.

Still, the Independent campaign operative said it’s not impossible.

“There’s room for Independent candidates in the environment we have now,” the operative said. “Voters around the country crave Independents and crave someone who is willing to not be partisan. Someone who is willing to put results ahead of special interests and parties.”

With enough money, the operative said, a field operation is something Crist could have up and running in a matter of weeks.

A Democratic strategist also said there’s certainly reason to fear an Independent bid by Crist when it comes to the fundraising game.

“The money is not going to be easy, but it can happen,” the operative said, pointing to the $17 million that Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) raised in his 2006 campaign. Crist “is still the sitting governor. ... I think it all depends on whether people see a path to victory with him. People want to be with a winner.”

As Crist tries to make his case as an Independent, he’ll also be dealing with the flip side of campaign fundraising: GOP donors wanting their money back.

On conservative website RedState.com this week, Erick Erickson wrote that the first order of business after Crist leaves the party will be for all Republican Senators who backed Crist to immediately demand their money back.

In addition, Erickson wrote, “I hope the Club for Growth will, like they did with [party-switching Sen.] Arlen Specter [D-Pa.], get every Crist donor to demand their money back.”

Crist won’t be legally obligated to return the money that he’s raised and could try weathering the storm to preserve precious cash. But that would create its own issues with news stories about donors saying Crist took their money under false pretenses. If nothing else, it will be an awkward story for Crist to deal with as he tries to relaunch and rebrand himself.

A Crist Independent bid also would probably further energize the fundraising of his top competitor, former state Speaker Marco Rubio (R), who has already benefited from a flood of high-profile endorsements from the party establishment who are flocking to his campaign.

“All the people who wrote checks to Crist ... are going to want to get on the right side of this” and do so quickly, one Republican operative said this week.

Rubio outraised Crist $3.7 million to $1.2 million during the first quarter of 2010 (Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek raised $1.1 during that time.) And as Crist begins trying to cultivate a new donor base from voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum, Rubio will have the tried-and-true donors who make up the party base to himself.

Money will certainly be the top priority for the rest of the cycle for Crist, but in the early days of an Independent candidacy, he’d also have to spend time putting together an entirely new campaign team.

Crist has seen his campaign structure begin to fall apart as he’s begun to move toward an Independent candidacy, including former Sen. Connie Mack’s resignation as campaign chairman last week.

It’s safe to say he’ll see a mass exodus of staff, advisers and supporters on the day he drops his Republican Party label.

“Nobody of any consequence is going to risk their career for a one-in-a-million shot,” the Republican operative said.

Erickson said he is prepared to dish out harsh punishments for anyone who dares stick with Crist.

“We need to see which Republican operatives stay with Crist and make sure they have a hard time finding work,” Erickson wrote last week.

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