Charlie Crist, Florida’s former Republican governor who fled the party to become a Democrat, told supporters he wants to reclaim the office next year, setting up a campaign-spending spree that may eclipse the more than $100 million spent in 2010’s record-breaking race.
Crist, 57, said at a rally in St. Petersburg today that he wants to oust his successor, Republican Governor Rick Scott, whose approval rating in Quinnipiac University polls has been below 50 percent since he was elected in 2010. Crist said he would fight for the middle class, and described Scott as beholden to lobbyists and big businesses.
The former governor’s entry into the race opens the spigot of spending for consultants, pollsters and advertising agencies from both parties.
“It’s going to be a bonanza,” said Jay Goldfarb, who earned more than $18,000 this year through his Budget Printing Center in Riviera Beach, producing fundraising invitations for the 60-year-old incumbent. “I expect this to continue, very hot and heavy, right down to the wire.”
Scott, a former chief executive officer at HCA Holdings Inc., has raised more than $18.7 million for next year’s race. As he traveled to Japan on Nov. 2 for a trade mission, his re-election committee spent more than $500,000 on a two-week blitz of television ads targeting Crist.
The larger states of California, Texas and New York are more predictably Democratic or Republican. That makes Florida, the fourth-most-populous in the nation, a barometer. Donors from across the U.S. plan to pour resources into its governor’s race, to lay the groundwork for the next presidential election.
“Florida is a microcosm of the nation, and people look at Florida because we have the evolving demographics, and we have the ability to swing the 2016 presidential campaign,” said Kevin Cate, a Democratic consultant who was the Florida spokesman for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Cate, who’s advising Crist, owns a Tallahassee-based firm that provides media consulting and digital advertising. It’s one of hundreds of businesses that stand to benefit from a race that will require direct-mail advertising, hotel stays, private flight services, flowers, food and more.
Scott listed his net worth at $218 million in 2010 and $83 million in a disclosure report this year. Crist, a lawyer at Tampa-based law firm Morgan & Morgan, listed his net worth at about $441,500 just before leaving office in January 2011. He entered the race Nov. 1 and has yet to file a new disclosure.
Crist told about 200 people gathered in a downtown St. Petersburg park today that he would reverse spending cuts in public education, restore voting rights for ex-felons and restart a high-speed rail project Scott blocked in 2011. Crist described Scott as beholden to his campaign contributors.
“Under this administration, big business, big contributors, big lobbyists —- they’re the winners,” he said, standing in front of a sign that read “The People’s Governor.” “As governor, we’re going to have a tax policy that puts you, the people, first.”
Melissa Sellers, a spokeswoman for Scott, didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking a response to Crist’s comments.
State Republicans created a website that criticized their former leader as an opportunist.
“Throughout his career, Charlie Crist has only been interested in one person -- himself,” said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, in a statement. “When things got tough in Florida, he abandoned the state to pursue the bright lights of Washington.”
Crist told a Florida Democratic Party conference last month that Scott plans to spend $100 million on his re-election. Scott hasn’t publicly said how much the campaign will cost, though he has said he won’t use his own money.
Curry said his party will spend what’s necessary to tell voters about shifts in Crist’s policy positions and an economic decline while he was governor from 2007 to 2011, when the state’s unemployment rate more than tripled to 10.9 percent from 3.5 percent.
Crist led Scott 47 percent to 37 percent in a June poll by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University. The survey of 1,176 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
Between Crist and Scott, spending may rival California’s 2010 governor’s race, the most expensive in history, as billionaire Republican Meg Whitman, former chief executive officer of EBay Inc., spent $144 million of her own money in a bid that ultimately failed.
In Florida’s 2010 governor’s race, the biggest beneficiary of spending was Multi Media Services Inc. The media-buying company in Alexandria, Virginia, got more than $20 million to help Scott blanket Florida with television ads.
Top donors like the Florida Chamber of Commerce will spend millions to help Scott and highlight the state’s economic rebound, said Mark Wilson, its president. Unemployment in Florida was down to 7 percent as of August, lower than the national rate of 7.3 percent that month.
“We’ll invest whatever it takes,” Wilson said. “This is not just an election in Florida, this is very much a signal” to the rest of the country.
Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, said his group is prepared to match or beat the $10 million it spent in Florida in 2010.
“It’s an incredibly expensive state with 11 media markets, so it’s harder for outside groups to have an appreciable impact,” he said in a telephone interview. “You have to put real money on the table.”
In addition to protecting Scott, Republicans want to make sure Crist doesn’t win as a Democrat. A lifelong Republican who fled the party during an unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate race, Crist embodies a narrative that his former party is trying to combat.
He is releasing a book titled, “The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat,” and has criticized Republicans for calcifying around positions unpopular with most Americans, such as calls to cut spending on Social Security and Medicare.
In a speech endorsing Obama at the Democratic National Convention last year, Crist said that Republicans are “beholden to the my-way-or-the-highway bullies, indebted to billionaires who bankroll their ads and allergic to the very idea of compromise.”
The state Republican Party, which spent almost $67 million during the 2010 elections, has already put out daily ads and e-mails attacking Crist. One sent last month was titled: “Unfit to Govern: Part XVII.”
The Democratic nominee will have help from national groups including the Democratic Governors Association, said Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Washington-based group.
“We believe he’s deeply vulnerable,” Kanner said of Scott. “Because of that, it’s one of our top-targeted races.”