Charlie Crist’s campaign a “test case” for Democratic liberals

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Democratic Party leaders were thrilled when former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist entered the 2014 Florida governor’s race, with hopes that a pragmatist will bring into the fold independents and centrist Republicans tired of incumbent Gov. Rick Scott.

After embracing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — even while a few loyalists remain skittish —calling for an increase for the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana and gay marriage, all issues Crist was once against, the former governor’s hard left turn concerns some Democrats, writes Michael Mishak of the Associated Press.

“Tallahassee is out of control,” Crist said when declaring his candidacy. “The voice of the people has been silenced by the financial bullies and the special interests.”

Rousing activists with a populist campaign, Crist is making the nation’s biggest swing state a test case for the liberal faction of the Democratic Party, hoping to learn if it is gaining strength or setting its sights too high.

Centrist Democratic organization Third Way co-founder Matt Bennett warned the AP that an “us-versus-them, people-versus-powerful rhetoric” could affect Democrats in contested races.

“That will work with a slice of the base, but that will not resonate with the kind of swing voters you need to prevail in places like Florida,” Bennett added. Democrats will “need to talk about a much broader set of ideas to create opportunity.”

Democrats are trying to reshape the party after an enormous recession and a growing income gap.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among other liberals, supports a dynamic populist approach over the economic policy of President Bill Clinton that revived Democrats two decades ago.

Six states, including Florida, have Democratic gubernatorial candidates making increases in the minimum wage a lynchpin of their campaigns.

Republicans maintain a minimum wage hike puts a struggling economic recovery in jeopardy. They recommend streamlining regulations and add more education and training.

“When I hear a politician say that we have to raise the minimum wage so working families can make ends meet, I cringe,” Scott told the Tampa Bay Times, “because I know that statement is a lie.”

Scott added that “Even if we did raise the minimum wage, working families will still not be able to make ends meet on those jobs … We need good jobs that lead to good careers for our families and that’s what I am focused on.”

Scott’s current budget proposal includes $600 million in tax cuts, including cutting back auto registrations fees raised under Crist, the governor from 2007 to 2011.

Floridians, by large margins, say they are generally satisfied their own financial situation. But optimism hasn’t converted to trust in Scott or the state’s economy.

Crist is hoping to cash in on that uncertainty. His plan looks to strengthen his reputation with skeptical Democratic activists as well as wealthy donors.

“Some of these issues that were considered way out there five years ago, they’re not now,” Democratic strategist Ana Cruz, former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, told the AP. “I think the country has refocused on the things that are really important to them, and it’s not who you sleep with and it’s not what you smoke.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.