In Florida, a battle for the GOP's soul

Gov. Charlie Crist, a popular moderate, announced his run for Senate on Tuesday, and conservatives immediately lined up against him.

By Alex Koppelman
Published May 12, 2009 8:15PM (EDT)

At first glance, it would appear that the Republican Party scored a major victory on Tuesday with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's announcement that he's running for Senate. The seat is already in Republican hands, but Sen. Mel Martinez is retiring, and that decision could have left an opening for Democrats to come in and get yet another senator. Now, though, the GOP can rest easy, knowing that the popular Crist would be tough to beat even if there was a strong Democratic candidate, and there isn't one for now.

Underscoring just how important Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, even took the somewhat unusual step of endorsing Crist. Cornyn had originally said he wouldn't do that until a nominee was decided through the state's primary.

But these days, nothing comes that easy for Republicans. Crist is a moderate who's bucked his party on a number of issues, and he hasn't endeared himself to the GOP base in the process. His very public support of the stimulus -- he even campaigned with President Obama for it -- hasn't helped him there. (That was, after all, the issue that led to a primary challenge against Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, causing his eventual defection.) So conservative activists are unhappy about Crist's entry in to the race, and about Cornyn's decision to endorse him. And they already have a candidate to back.

Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio had previously announced his intention to run for the Republican nomination, and he's not backing down. In fact, he's going on the offensive -- he's already released a Web ad (embedded below) attacking Crist and tying him to Obama. "Some politicians support trillions in reckless spending, borrowed money from China and the Middle East, mountains of debt for our children and a terrible threat to our fragile economy," the video's narrator says a picture of the president and the governor together comes in to focus.

Crist is obviously the favorite in this race, but he draws support from independents, and Florida has a closed primary system: Only registered Republicans can vote in the Republican primary, and so on. That gives Rubio some hope, and if the early reaction is any indication, it's given conservative activists some as well. Any drama that ensues as the party establishment battles its base over the question over whether victory with a candidate who doesn't hew to GOP orthodoxy is preferable to a loss by solid conservative could have repercussions for Republicans for years to come.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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