When Charlie Crist decided last year to pursue Florida’s open Senate seat, vacated by the retiring Mel Martinez, instead of going for a second gubernatorial term, most people assumed the race would be a victory lap for the popular Republican governor. Fast-forward to today, with Crist about to jettison his Republican ties and launch an independent bid for the Senate instead.
His collapse has been epic. A Quinnipiac poll from last week showed Crist trailing his Republican foe, Marco Rubio, by an unsalvageable 56-33 percent. Compare that to a Quinnipiac poll from almost a year ago, when Crist led Rubio 54-8!
Two things tripped up Crist during his victory lap: 1) Florida’s once-humming economy collapsed, as its unemployment rate (currently 12.2 percent) became one of the nation’s worst; and 2) Rubio, the conservative and charismatic former state House speaker, caught on with Tea Party activists, who'd been looking for a vehicle to take on Crist (who infuriated them when he literally embraced President Obama and promoted his stimulus package last year).
But does the decision to launch an independent bid help Crist? Well, it can't hurt him. Compared with his terrible prospects in the Republican primary, he has a fighting chance in a three-way general election -- maybe even a slim advantage.
That same Quinnipiac poll from last week found Crist winning the three-way race with 32 percent of the vote (compared to 30 percent for Rubio and 24 percent for Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek). The good news for Crist is that much of his support comes from independents and moderate Democrats, who can’t help him in the primary, but who can vote for him in the general. This is bad news for Meek, since Crist’s strength among Democrats means he is likely to drain votes that would otherwise go to the Democratic nominee. In a two-way race against Rubio -- with no Crist -- Meek actually comes close, trailing just by just 4 points (42 to 38 percent).
Then again, two surveys from last month showed a different result. Research 2000, polling on behalf of Daily Kos, gave a small edge to Rubio in the three-way race, who led with 32 percent, with Crist at 29 percent and Meek at 27. And Rasmussen Reports (often accused of leaning Republican) gave an even bigger edge to Rubio, who led with 42 percent, with Meek at 25 and Crist at 22.
By breaking ranks with the GOP, Crist is rolling the dice in a big way. But it’s still a better bet for him than staying in the Republican primary, where he has no chance at all.