Crist Move Follows Years of Antagonizing the GOP

Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:59pm

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is on the cusp of leaving the Republican Party, and the sentiment among many GOP operatives appears to be, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Crist will announce Thursday in his hometown of St. Petersburg that he will run for Senate with no party affiliation, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, a move that has become more and more apparent in recent weeks.

And to think, Crist is just two weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of the National Republican Senatorial Committee hailing him as “a dedicated public servant and a dynamic leader” in its endorsement of his Senate campaign.

Still confused about how Crist fell so far so fast?

The conventional wisdom in political circles is that Crist took his Republican base for granted.

But perhaps that doesn’t go far enough.

In many ways, Crist has deliberately antagonized not only the party’s base but also mainstream Republicans since stepping into the national spotlight as Florida’s governor. He snubbed leading party officials and went way off party message — well before “The Hug.”

So why did the blowback start to be felt only in late 2009, when Crist’s campaign took a nosedive and his primary opponent, former state Speaker Marco Rubio, took off?

Perhaps because Crist was a winner, and in politics winning has a way of glossing over a lot of ugly blemishes.

But in the end, Crist may have gambled too much on his own popularity.

With his career as a Republican coming to a close Thursday, it’s a good time to review a few of the moments when Crist turned sharply from the GOP. Those moments might explain the speed and passion with which so many Republicans, in Florida and elsewhere, flocked to Rubio’s cause when he emerged as a viable alternative to the governor late last year.

‘Ask George LeMieux.’

In the final days of the 2006 campaign, President George W. Bush traveled to Pensacola as part of his final get-out-the-vote effort that cycle. He was scheduled to appear at a campaign event with Crist, but in a bold move, the GOP gubernatorial candidate decided at the last minute to blow off the president. The Associated Press reported at the time that Crist didn’t even give the White House enough notice to change the printed schedules that had Crist introducing the president at the rally.

As the story goes, Crist’s chief of staff, now-Sen. George LeMieux (R), had convinced Crist that the conservative area of the Panhandle was safely in his camp and that he needed to campaign elsewhere in the state.

But the move clearly embarrassed the White House.

When CNN asked top Bush adviser Karl Rove why Crist had ditched the rally that day, Rove angrily snapped that the reporter should “ask George LeMieux.”

The fact is an appearance with Bush that day probably would not have changed the outcome of Crist’s gubernatorial race, and many conservatives in Florida view Crist’s snub of the president as a slap in the face to the commander in chief. It also convinced many Republicans that Crist was a man more worried about having his rising star tarnished than someone who would stand by his party.

‘Lawyers are back’

Not long after taking office in 2007, Crist declared that “lawyers are back.”

St. Petersburg Times columnist Steve Bousquet reported that Crist made that statement at an event in West Palm Beach when the former attorney general spotted a fellow lawyer in a crowd.

“Crist wanted it known that the legal profession would not be shunned” in his administration as it had been during former Gov. Jeb Bush’s, Bousquet wrote in 2008.

Crist’s cozy relationship with and heavy financial support from trial lawyers during his campaign didn’t sit well in conservative circles after he moved into the governor’s mansion.

In fact, Florida radio talk show host Burnie Thompson mentioned Crist’s comment on trial lawyers in a column he penned for the Washington Times in 2008 as part of his argument for why Crist would not make a good vice presidential pick for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Jeb’s Legacy

Upon taking office, one of Crist’s first official acts was to revoke nearly 300 appointments made by his predecessor, Bush.

It would be the first of many times in which Crist seemed to trample on the work of a man who was one of his key supporters during Crist’s gubernatorial campaign, not to mention a figure who remains much beloved by Florida Republicans and respected in conservative policy circles nationally.

In the policy realm, Crist decided to put his own mark on several of what were seen as Bush’s legacy programs, such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test program for schools and Bush’s One Florida affirmative action initiative.

“Gov. Bush was someone who placed policy above all else,” said Albert Martinez, who worked as an aide to the former governor and now works as an adviser to Rubio. “He suffered a lot of slings and arrows for [One Florida], but he stuck with it. … When Gov. Crist came in it was never about the policy it was about the politics.”

But Martinez said Crist has also fumbled what the former governor handed him in the political realm.

“Jeb Bush basically helped build the Republican Party of Florida from nothing into one of the most envied state parties in the country” by the time he left office, Martinez said.

Pointing to the recent scandals involving fiscal mismanagement that led to Crist’s appointed state party chairman stepping down earlier this year, Martinez said, “Crist took that and in four years has destroyed it.”

Climate Change and Stem Cells

In his first year in office, Crist made the battle against global warming a key policy initiative and rolled out an aggressive plan to curb carbon emissions. Crist’s plan didn’t sit well with Republicans wary of the cost of those projects or the science behind global warming.

But Crist made a big splash as he fell in with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and launched a high-profile campaign on the issue.

Crist also angered abortion opponents in his party in early 2007 by taking a middle-of-the-road course in the debate over stem cell research. In his budget proposal that year, Crist asked for $20 million on stem cell research as long as it involved only adult stem cells or existing stem cell lines and not new cells harvested from human embryos.

‘The Hug’

The lasting image of the Senate GOP primary campaign took place before Crist even entered the race.

Crist outraged many in his party by appearing at a Fort Myers rally with President Barack Obama to promote the federal stimulus package that was still being fiercely debated on Capitol Hill. At that event, Crist gave the president a warm embrace that was captured on camera.

Rubio used the image to launch his campaign in 2009 and has rallied conservatives to his cause with it ever since.

“It was a slow build that led to the hug,” said David Johnson, a Florida Republican consultant and former state GOP executive director. But after it happened, “the hug was the straw that broke the camel’s back. … When George Bush came to Florida, [Crist] didn’t stand with him. But he sure was there when Obama showed up.”