Crist is a moderate choice for a moderate state GOP
CHRIS PUMMER: As a popular governor with fundraising abilities and crossover appeal, Florida’s Charlie Crist should be considered a rising national star among the beleaguered Republican ranks. But standing between him and a seat in the U.S. Senate is hard-right GOP primary challenger Marco Rubio.
Crist is no favorite of the Republican base. He supported President Obama’s stimulus package. He’s been a greater friend to the environment than his predecessor Jeb Bush. And he’s never articulated a strong pro-life or anti-gay position. That leaves him with a dangerously similar image to former Republican senator Arlen Specter. Specter switched to the Democratic side last month after fearing a loss to challenger Pat Toomey in the GOP primary because of his moderate positions.
So will Rubio win a primary by painting Crist as too liberal? I think that won’t be as easy for Rubio to do as some expect.
For starters, Florida’s GOP remains much more moderate than the Republican party has become in other states. Florida does have a closed primary, like Pennsylvania, so only GOP voters can participate. But the Florida GOP also isn’t hemorrhaging voters the way its PA counterpart is.
Plenty of people have looked at how many Republicans switched their affiliation to Democrat during the last election cycle. Specter even cited an estimated 200,000 party changes as a reason for his switch. But Florida’s Republican voter registration tally has remained steady.
According to the Florida Division of Elections:
Registered GOP Florida Voters
2008: 4,064,301 (November general election)
2008: 3,924,081 (state primary)
2008: 3,825,727 (presidential primary)
2006: 3,935,675 (general)
2006: 3,930,602 (primary)
2004: 3,892,492 (general)
2004: 3,705,081 (state primary)
2004: 3,586,944 (presidential primary)
Contrast that to a Pennsylvania Republican voter base that shrank. There were 3,245,271 registered Pennsylvania Republicans in November of 2007, compared to 3,186,057 in April of 2008, when many voters wanted to be involved in the Democratic primary.
While though those Florida numbers represent a falloff compared to the number of new Democrats registering in the Sunshine State, but it still doesn’t look like the GOP is shrinking they way it is in other parts of the country.
So while the base might favor Rubio, he and Crist aren’t battling it out within a rump party primary like Specter would have had to do against Toomey.
Factor in the support Crist will enjoy from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, how that could undercut Rubio’s ability to raise money, plus Rubio’s lack of name recognition, and Crist still has to be considered a big favorite in this race.
If Crist can’t be nominee here, the Republicans really are in trouble.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I think Chris makes reasonable assumptions based upon what the numbers say the Republican party currently is. I have my doubts about whether those numbers reflect the reality, however, though Mason-Dixon currently has Crist ahead of Rubio, 53 percent to 18 percent.
Let’s start with the numbers. Yes, Republican registration has remained steady in Florida. But it is certainly worth remembering that in Florida, Obama-Clinton, which drove massive voter registration drives in Pennsylvania, did not exist (much to Hillary’s chagrin).
So while registration would be a lagging indicator anyway, this is especially true in Florida.
So the question becomes, assuming equal candidates, just how to determine if a Republican group in Pennsylvania that nearly ousted Arlen Specter in 2004 is more conservative than the group Crist/Rubio will face in 2010. Unfortunately, we don’t have the advantage of a 2008 Pennsylvania GOP primary exit poll for a direct comparison. But here are the relevant numbers for our upcoming universe from CNN’s Florida 2008 GOP primary exit poll.
61 percent of Florida voters self-identified as conservative. Not surprisingly, a similar number of voters in that primary rated Charlie Crist’s endorsement of John McCain as “Not important”- 54 percent to 42 percent. Remember, they really had no place to go in 2008-the problem that plagued conservatives nationwide in the GOP primary. While it is impossible to know how many fewer moderates are in the GOP now, it certainly seems reasonable to assume there are fewer, considering the trend in every other state as well as nationwide.
And in Marco Rubio, Florida conservatives clearly do have a conservative alternative to Charlie Crist, whose support for President Obama in 2009 has already birthed Rubio’s first commercial.
So what does Rubio have to do to win this overwhelmingly conservative GOP? Essentially, provide a decent alternative. As we look deeper into the seemingly huge Crist lead in the recent polling, notice that among Republicans, Crist is a known quantity. And this isn’t a good thing. Crist is favorable among 50 percent, unfavorable by 19 percent, neutral an astounding 31 percent. Considering Rubio, should he tap the same Club for Growth sources as Toomey, will have plenty of money, it is his task to knock that 50 percent down in a group that, again, is at most 39 percent moderate-liberal.
And make no mistake about it: Crist is more liberal than nearly any Republican you know. Crist supported President Obama’s stimulus package-you know, the issue that mobilized conservatives against Arlen Specter. Crist is routinely straying from GOP orthodoxy, from refusing to call for overturning of Roe v. Wade to supporting embryonic stem cell research. There is more than enough material for Rubio to run a campaign ad against him from now until the primary.
As for Rubio himself, his favorable-unfavorable rating in Florida among the GOP in 20-2. That is very similar to Toomey’s recent 24-2 rating in a poll that helped ease Specter from the GOP. So far, the moderates in Florida haven’t massed against Rubio, allowing him to define Crist before Crist can define Rubio.
There’s also the unknown of the rumors that Charlie Crist is gay. Will this hurt him below the radar? Hard to imagine it will help among the Florida GOP, particularly given such an aging population is extra likely to penalize him for it. Remember, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. It will certainly be out there, providing a boost to Rubio.
So even if Florida is more Pennsylvania 2004 than Pennsylvania 2010, remember this: Arlen Specter won by only 1.7 percent over Pat Toomey in 2004. Specter had conservatives like Rick Santorum giving him political cover. And a last-second visit by George W. Bush on Specter’s behalf made an enormous difference. The Bush in the room, Jeb, was a Rubio mentor, and has yet to commit.
Charlie Crist, more liberal than Specter, facing a candidate in Rubio who is every bit as conservative as Toomey (with the Hispanic background as a Florida bonus), without a visit looming from a popular Republican president, has an uphill road in Florida. What it means for the Republicans if Charlie Crist, a slam-dunk general election winner, can’t get a nomination is another story for another day. But for Republicans hoping to return to the majority in the near future, such a loss would be devastating.