From CQ: The Texas Republican in charge of helping his party win Senate seats recently moved to narrow the field in Florida’s 2010 primary but now faces a much wider problem: an incendidary backlash by the conservative movement.
As soon as Gov. Charlie Crist made the long-anticipated announcement that he would run, John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, gave Crist a quick and hearty endorsement, even though another Republican, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, wants the job.
For Cornyn, the calculus was simple math: Crist is a proven statewide vote-getter who can raise money on his own.
Since the endorsement, Cornyn has touted polling showing the better-known Crist with a 53 percent to 18 percent lead and said he would decide “on a case-by-case basis” which Senate primary contests to get involved in.
But Cornyn’s move left conservatives furious over the effort to quash the nascent campaign of Rubio, a young Cuban-American whom they say embodies the GOP’s goal of trying to expand the party’s appeal to minority voters.
A Web site known as “Not One Red Cent” — and connected to popular Republican activists Erick Erickson and John Hawkins — is encouraging conservatives to withhold their money from the NRSC and call for Cornyn’s resignation. Rubio, 37, has become the site’s cause célèbre.
“The leadership of the Republican Party keeps saying we need to get back to our principles and talking about how important it is to attract more young voters and Hispanic Americans. Then, we get a viable, young, conservative, Hispanic candidate running for Senate and they arrogantly try to shove him aside to make way for a better connected, moderate pol who’s more acceptable to the GOP establishment,” Hawkins said in a statement released Thursday.
“This cuts to the core of what’s wrong with today’s Republican Party.”
“They’re certainly entitled to express their opinions on this Senate seat and participate in the democratic process just like anyone else,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh. “But that also includes Sen. Cornyn and the other Senate Republican leaders who have expressed their support for Gov. Crist. They’ve endorsed the governor because he’s not only a proven leader but he’s also the candidate to ensure that this seat stays Republican in a very competitive election cycle. So while it’s healthy to have a debate, at the end of the day it’s even more important for all Republicans to keep their eye on the ultimate goal, which is regaining the majority in the Senate.”
Cornyn defended his decision to get behind Crist as a practical move that will benefit the party’s efforts in the Senate and across the country.
“It’s because he can win,” he said of Crist. “Money we don’t have to spend in Florida could pull somebody over the finish line and can be used to help Republicans in other parts of the country. For me, the most important imperative for Republicans now in the Senate is to improve our numbers so we can be an effective check on single-party government.”
Cornyn’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said even without Republican infighting Crist is going to have a hard time convincing voters “that being the junior senator in the minority party is the way in which he’s going to help Florida vs. staying and doing the job,.”
Menendez said the uproar is likely to result in a “more significant primary challenge” for Crist than was anticipated.
Hawkins found Cornyn’s rationale lacking, saying the involvement of the NRSC is going to drain donations from the race and not save money. “The Republican Party is not supposed to be getting involved in Republican primaries,” he said.
At the same time, Crist is being hammered by the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, which has demonstrated the ability to direct huge sums of money to favored candidates in Republican primaries.
On Thursday, Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a former congressman from Indiana (2003-07), questioned whether Crist’s support for parts of President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package (PL 111-5) is a harbinger of a party-switch akin to the one made by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a longtime Republican who became a Democrat last month.
“Charlie Crist has shown he’s willing to say one thing and do another,” Chocola said. “Voters deserve to know just how far he’ll go for the sake of political expediency.”
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who like Rubio is Cuban-American, said Cornyn’s move has not ruled out a Republican Senate primary in Florida.
“People are free to run,” said Diaz-Balart, who has still not endorsed a candidate in the race.
“People vote on their analysis of the candidates” not endorsements from Washington, he said. “There’s an eternity between now and the primary.”