Charlie Crist, who fatally damaged his party stature by hugging President Barack Obama in 2009 as Florida’s Republican governor, is embracing the Democrat’s populist politics as he weighs a bid to reclaim that job.
A Republican who turned independent and then became a Democrat, Crist, 57, is making plans to run against Governor Rick Scott, a businessman turned politician, next year. As he ramps up attacks focused on Scott’s wealth, Crist pitches himself as a scrappy defender of middle-income families, echoing Obama’s tactics in beating Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
A race between Crist, washed out of politics by the 2010 Tea Party wave, and Scott, a Republican who rode into office atop it, may reverberate around the nation. Florida is the largest presidential swing state carried by Obama last year, and Democrats are hoping to revive his populist campaign message to unseat Republican governors from Michigan to Maine.
“I don’t care about his bank accounts,” Crist said by e-mail in a reference to the $100 million the Republican’s campaign plans to spend on a 2014 re-election bid. “I care about the bank accounts of regular working Floridians.’
Scott, who recently listed his net worth at $83.8 million, is a top target of the Democratic Governors Association, said Danny Kanner, a spokesman in Washington. He said Crist may help show whether the strategy is effective heading into 2014.
“Our message is one of growing the economy from the middle out and strengthening the middle-class,” said Kanner, who worked on Crist’s failed U.S. Senate campaign in 2010, his last year as governor. Kanner said his association plans to brand Republican governors next year as champions of the wealthy.
“Charlie Crist would be a strong candidate to do that,” Kanner said. Still, the converted Democrat hasn’t formally announced a run against Scott, so he can’t raise money for it.
The outcome of a duel between the two may affect the 2016 White House race. Then-Governor Crist’s support for Republican U.S. Senator John McCain in 2008 helped McCain wrap up his presidential nomination.
Today, Crist is behaving like a political candidate. Since campaigning for Obama last year, he has traveled the state to meet with Democratic groups, publicly criticized Scott’s administration and headlined party fundraisers.
Democrats, whose leaders once attacked Crist as an empty-chair politician, appear ready to welcome his candidacy. A potential party opponent, Alex Sink, a former Florida chief financial officer who lost the governor’s race to Scott in 2010, has said she won’t run in 2014.
Crist’s former allies are also ready for him. The Florida Republican Party has sent out hundreds of e-mails since last year, highlighting his vacillations on policy and the state’s economic decline during his single term. They’ve also set up a website focused on the economy under Scott compared with Crist.
Scott, a former health-care executive, has implied that Crist is to blame for Florida’s economic hardships during and after the 18-month recession than ended in June 2009.
“We lost 832,000 jobs in the four years before I became governor,” Scott, 60, said at a political summit in Orlando this month, an often-repeated line he uses. “Unemployment went from 3.5 to 11.1 percent. It never should have happened. We never should have had that downturn.”
Scott recently told the National Review magazine that he may spend $25 million early next year to “define” his presumed opponent. The governor and his wife, Ann, used more than $75 million of their own money on the 2010 race, winning by just 61,000 votes -- the closest margin in Florida history.
Crist is looking to cash-in on his name recognition among potential donors and voters, and has emphasized his record on consumer issues. As governor, he antagonized home insurers by freezing rates and backed property-tax caps as the housing market boomed. He listed his net worth at almost $441,500 just before leaving office in January 2011.
“Every campaign I’ve ever run was focused on what matters to the people,” Crist said by e-mail.
Bracing for the challenge, Republicans are branding Crist’s populism as opportunistic, saying he has run for five statewide offices since 1998. He was previously attorney general.
“Here’s a guy who’s a crass opportunist that will do and say anything to get and hold on to power,” said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
Curry said Crist has reversed positions from just three years ago, when he was trying to gain ground as an independent against Marco Rubio, who won the 2010 Senate race with Tea Party support. Crist backed a ban on same-sex marriage, criticized Obama’s health-care law and opposed letting tax cuts for top earners expire -- positions he has recanted since becoming a Democrat nine months ago.
Rubio attacked Crist in 2010 for taking federal economic-stimulus money and ran advertisements showing Crist hugging Obama after the 2009 inauguration. Trailing Rubio in polls, Crist left the Republicans, ran as an independent and lost. He quit politics to join the Morgan & Morgan law firm in Tampa.
Now as a Democrat, he’s embracing his Obama hug, telling a crowd in Louisiana last month that it signaled “the beginning of the end for Charlie Crist as a Republican.”
Even as a Republican governor, Crist often won support from Democrats while angering some in his party. He vetoed a bill to require ultrasound examinations for women seeking abortions, opposed linking teacher salaries to student performance and made it easier for ex-felons to regain voting rights. Scott signed the ultrasound and merit-pay bills in 2011, shortly after reversing Crist’s voting-rights initiative.
In a June poll from Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University, half of Florida voters said Scott didn’t deserve re-election. It said Crist led Scott by 10 percentage points.
By contrast, former state Senator Nan Rich, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, hardly registered in Quinnipiac’s poll. It showed 84 percent didn’t know her well enough to form an opinion.
“I welcome Charlie to the party, but the question is whether or not he has the credentials to represent Democrats’ values as governor,” Rich said. She said he has called himself a “pro-life, pro-guns and a Ronald Reagan Republican.”
Scott, speaking to Tea Party supporters in Orlando recently, slammed Crist for increasing state debt and “hugging Obama’s stimulus spending.” Melissa Sellers, a Scott spokeswoman, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The former governor has worked to shore up his support among Democrats, and even lawmakers from the party who once attacked him now tout his record and urge him to run.
Dan Gelber, a former legislator and Democratic leader from 2006 to 2010, said Crist has a strong record on issues important to middle-income families. He said Crist is one of a few people who has a chance against Scott’s well-funded campaign.
“Charlie Crist is well known to Florida and having the well-known nominee is not going to hurt us,” he said. “People want a governor who is thinking about them, who has their back.”