“You guys will be wishing you had [Martinez] back after a year of Charlie in the Senate.”
That’s what a prominent Florida Republican told me in March, as rumors mounted that the Sunshine State’s Gov. Charlie Crist would run for the seat of fellow Republican and retiring Sen. Mel Martinez.
It is well-known that conservatives had a problem with Martinez, whose strong support of “comprehensive immigration reform” put him at odds with many members of the Republican National Committee (where Martinez doubled as national chairman from 2006-07) and led to the derisive nickname for him of “Amnesty Mel.”
But Martinez’s immigration position notwithstanding, the retiring senator had a fairly conservative record (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 80%) overall. As Crist is reportedly poised to announce for the Senate soon, conservatives in and outside Florida grow increasingly jittery that, if nominated and elected next year, a “Sen. Crist (R.-Fla)” would swiftly emerge as the heir to the mantle “moderate-to-liberal Republican-senator-media-must-call” recently relinquished by Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter when he became a Democrat.
Weeks before Crist’s anticipated announcement for the Senate, former state House Speaker and stalwart conservative Mario Rubio has made it clear he is running for regardless of what the popular GOP governor will do. As Rubio put it during a recent stop at my office, “I’m not running because someone else may or may not run. I’m running because this is the time a strong conservative voice is needed in the Senate.”
But should the primary next year come down to Crist vs. Rubio, the candidacy of the former speaker and Miami attorney could well take on the kind of grass-roots support from conservatives that fueled Pat Toomey’s near-successful challenge to Specter in the Pennsylvania primary in ’04.
Stimulus, Environment, Judges. . .
Many conservatives in Florida had voiced skepticism about Crist’s right-of-center credentials going back to his first winning primary for governor in ’06. However, fear that he might try to become a national leader of non-conservative GOPers reached a crescendo during the National Governors Association meeting earlier this year, when the Floridian emerged as the leading Republican voice in favor of President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan.
“In the Florida way, we work together in a bipartisan fashion to do what’s right for the people,” Crist told NBC’s David Gregory on Meet the Press. Not only did Crist embrace the big-spending package that only three Republican senators and no Republican House Member ended up backing, but he also drew swatches of publicity for appearing with Obama at a town meeting in Florida to drum up support for the controversial measure.
As fellow Republican governors such as Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mark Sanford of South Carollina declined portions of the stimulus package, Crist eagerly accept all that was earmarked for Florida. In addition, he announced his intention to talk to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to persuade the federal government not to keep Florida from receiving about $2.7 billion in education money from the stimulus bill. According to the Palm Beach Post, “Florida could lose the federal money because it has cut state education spending in recent years.”
Well before he embraced the Obama package, Crist was considered the Republican office-holder most wed to the extreme environmentalist movement after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Along with hosting a summit meeting on global warming, Crist capped greenhouse gas pollution and ordered state agencies to reduce emissions through tighter auto efficieny standards in 2007.
“This is what leadership is all about,” Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp told reporters, “Charlie Crist understands that the risks of climate change are great but the opportunites for actions are greater.”
Crist also went after the state’s insurance industry and help guide through the legislature a measure to “reform” insurance: lowering the price of insurance by making state government a larger player in the market and undercutting private insurors. As National Review’s John Miller put it, “He decided to give John Edwards a run for his money for the year’s most flamboyantly anti-business rhetoric.”
At a time when court appointments are considered top priorities for conservatives at all level, Crist broke a lot of conservative hearts when he named Circuit Judge James Perry to the Florida Supreme Court. The 65-year-old Perry is a registered Democrat with a long history of work in the civil rights movement.
In so doing, the governor passed over Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alan Lawson, who was backed by the National Rifle Association, Florida Right to Life, and the Florida Family Policy Council. Adam Goldman of Florida Right to Life told Tampa Bay OnLine: “Gov. Crist is really taking a risk . I’m sure there’s going to be a primary for the Senate race, and he’s not doing himself any favors.”
Indeed. One recent poll showed the governor with a whopping 71 % approval rating. Admirers point out that he has cut state taxes and, as a former attorney general of the state, sports an image of being tough on crime.
But on so many “red meat issues” that are so significant to likely GOP primary voters, Florida conservatives almost always contrast Crist to his much-admired Republican predecessor and say “He’s no Jeb Bush.”
The question could also be put as “Is he Arlen Specter?” and will be be as much an irritant to his party in the Senate as the Pennsylvanian was. Time, and a contested primary, will tell.