The fall of party-switchers like Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Parker Griffith signaled to similar candidates that voters don't like to be manipulated, say experts. But recent polls suggest that Republican-turned-independent Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has done a decent job convincing voters that his late April move is about policy and not politics.
If he is able to pull it off, it may send a national message that leaving a party during an election season may not be a bad idea after all.
Crist will have to win over some Democratic voters in order to make it to Washington next January, and he has made some recent political decisions to align himself with the left.
In a move popular among Democrats, Crist vetoed a Florida bill this month that would require a woman to pay for an ultrasound before terminating her pregnancy. And less than two weeks before he announced his independent Senate bid, Crist supported Democratic state lawmakers by vetoing a bill that would have based teachers' salaries on student performance. "If a Martian came to earth and settled in Florida and just saw Charlie Crist's record in the last few months," says Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac Polling Institute, "he'd think [Crist] was a born and bred Democrat."
And politically, Crist is reaping large benefits from the oil spill. As governor, he has the pulpit to place pressure on BP and Congress. He's been photographed surveying Florida beaches, most recently with President Obama which could help him gain support among Democrats. "It's allowed him to look very chief executive-like, and much more of a leader than he has in the past," says Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida. "He's omnipresent. It's given him a great platform." [See photos of the Gulf oil spill.]
But Crist has flipped-flopped on offshore oil drilling, opposing it 2006 and supporting it 2008. Since the oil spill, Crist has said he wants to back away from offshore drilling. But analysts say this is part of Crist's populist tendencies, and that his stance on oil drilling has ebbed and flowed with the public's wavering opinion. "To some people this is maddening, to others they think this is the epitome of democracy," says Aubrey Jewett, political science professor at University of Central Florida. "He will generally try to do what he views as what the majority wants him to do. So if you're someone who has firm principles, it drives you crazy, whether you're a conservative or a liberal."
Experts say Crist's name recognition, high approval ratings, and the fact that, as an independent, he doesn't have to spend money running in the state's August primary give him a leg up. Recent polls show Crist leading his Republican opponent, former state House Speaker and tea party favorite Marco Rubio, to whom analysts say Crist would have lost the Republican primary, by a few points. The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio is expected to carry much of the Latino vote. But he's come under fire recently for his stance on Arizona's immigration bill, speaking out against the original measure before eventually supporting it.
Crist and Rubio are several points ahead of Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek in the polls. Now that billionaire Democrat Jeff Greene, who made much of his money betting that the housing bubble would burst, announced his candidacy, Meek will have to start spending more money in the primary. So far, he's raised $5.7 million. [See where Meek's money comes from.]
But in Florida's 10 region media market, that won't get him very far. "This is a T.V. state, you can't compete without ads," says MacManus. She says it costs roughly $1.5 million for candidates to run campaign commercials in all of Florida's television markets for one week.
Analysts say Greene's fortune could help him defeat Meek in the primary and win the Democratic nomination. But in the general election, the fact that Greene made millions of dollars during the housing crisis could repel Democratic voters and send them to Crist. "It may well turn out that there's a perception of the Democratic nominee being unelectable," says Brown. "Voters may say, 'well who do I like better, Crist or Rubio?'"