By Michelle Koepp
“Winners have more friends than losers do” Charlie Crist writes in his recently-released book, “The Party’s Over: How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat.” The former Republican politician, who governed Florida from 2007 to 2011, is running for his old job again, but this time as a Democrat. Supporters argue that Crist’s shift in allegiances is the sign of a rational politician who is unafraid to make a dramatic, albeit risky, political evolution. Detractors argue that Crist will play any card just in the hopes of coming out the winner.
Crist wound down his governorship in 2009 with the pronouncement that he would not seek a second term, making him the first Florida governor since the 1960’s not to run as an incumbent in a gubernatorial race. Instead, he would seek the open Senate seat. But in a state where the senate primary is seen as a battleground over the future of the GOP, fellow Republican Marco Rubio–the Tea Party candidate in the year the movement was gaining steam–soon had Crist hopelessly upstaged at the polls. Crist then adopted the course of action that many strategists were calling his only shot at winning: he broke ranks with the GOP midway through the race and instead continued his senate bid as an Independent (although he cited partisan bickering as the reason for ending his Republican career). By that point though, even before his switch to the Independent party, Crist’s GOP career had already long been effectively over: in a gesture lampooned in the Florida press as “the Hug”, the then-governor’s warm embrace of President Obama at a 2009 rally is described by Crist himself as the “simple gesture [that] ended my career as a viable Republican politician.”
After two years as an Independent, Crist endorsed Obama for re-election in 2012, and by year’s end announced that he had officially become a registered Democrat.
Today, the race between Crist and current governor Rick Scott has become one of the most high-profile in the country. Given his political provenance, Crist has predictably come under scrutiny for “flip flopping” as he has assumed different positions on a myriad of issues - from the Cuban embargo to gay marriage to abortion to healthcare – as a candidate who has traversed the political spectrum from right to left. For the past few months however he has been leading Scott in the polls. Obamacare, now supported by Crist and opposed by Scott, has been a particularly hot topic. Crist leads Scott in the polls, but Scott still fares better than Obama, who paid a visit to the Sunshine State on Friday, March 7. The President was greeted by now-fellow Democrat Crist, although the famously outgoing Crist was conspicuously a little more tempered before the cameras this time. There was no repeat of “the Hug”, which Crist will today describe as “The hug that killed me [as well as] the hug that saved me.” Whether Floridans will actually prove the latter true on voting day remains to be seen.