Florida’s governor’s race just got more interesting. The state’s former Republican governor, Charlie Crist, announced in St. Petersburg on Monday that he’s entering the race as a Democrat.
Crist is running against Florida’s current Republican governor, Rick Scott, a conservative elected with strong Tea Party support.
At a rally to kick off his campaign at a park overlooking Tampa Bay, Crist was unapologetic about his change in parties.
“Yeah, I’m running as a Democrat,” he said. “And I am proud to do it.”
There have been a lot of changes for Crist over the last three years. In his first term as governor, he decided to run for Florida’s open Senate seat.
But that was just after “the hug” — when Crist welcomed President Obama to Florida with a half-embrace. It became a symbol for conservative Republicans of what they didn’t like about Crist. Even more, it helped Marco Rubio galvanize Tea Party support and win the Republican nomination for the Senate.
Crist left the Republican Party to run — and lose — as an independent.
Now he’s back looking for his old job as governor — this time, as a Democrat. He says he’s entered the race because he doesn’t like what he sees from Scott, his conservative Republican successor.
“The more I watched Rick Scott govern,” Crist said, “the partisanship, the deals, always putting the special interests ahead of your interests, and the more I heard from you the people, I knew it was time to take Florida in a better direction.”
Scott is a former hospital executive who narrowly won as governor in 2010 by spending more than $70 million of his personal fortune. As governor, he has opposed many of Obama’s policies, rejecting billions of dollars in stimulus money to build a high-speed rail line and helping lead the fight against the Affordable Care Act.
This week, Scott is on an overseas trade mission. Although he hasn’t officially kicked off his re-election campaign yet, it’s already active, producing an ad running this week attacking Crist with quotes from his former Democratic adversaries.
Although he just made it official, Crist’s entrance into the governor’s race has been long anticipated. Florida Republicans began sending out releases attacking him over the summer. During Monday’s rally, a plane flew overhead towing a banner with the address of a Republican website attacking him.
Democrats say those are signs that Republicans are worried. Florida Republican Chairman Lenny Curry denies that.
“It’s clear to us that the Democrats don’t have much of a bench in the state of Florida,” he said. “And Charlie was jabbing and poking enough that would lead one to believe that he was going to seek some office. So we figured we’d go on offense.”
Among party leaders and the Republican base in Florida, Crist is considered a turncoat, someone who betrayed conservative principles and his party for personal ambition.
But among moderate Republicans, independents and now Democrats, Crist thinks he’ll do well. Democratic leaders embraced him at a recent statewide convention — despite the fact that a long-time Democratic stalwart, former state Sen. Nan Rich, is already in the race.
Long before he switched parties, Crist embraced policies as governor that endeared him to Democrats and angered some Republicans. He pushed to restore voting rights to felons who served their time, and in the 2008 presidential election, extended early voting hours, a move that helped Obama win Florida.
Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who managed the Obama campaign in Florida, says that, at the time, Crist’s decision was “shocking.”
“It was, I think, a fairly courageous decision, all in all,” Schale says. “In the end, I don’t know that the decision itself is why we won Florida. But it certainly made it possible for more people to get out and vote.”
On his transition from Republican to Democrat, Crist echoes Ronald Reagan, turning around his famous quote with “I didn’t leave the Republican Party. It left me.”
At his campaign rally in St. Petersburg, Crist attacked Scott as a tool of the Tea Party and special interests, linking him with the no-compromise stance that he said led to the deadlock in Washington.
A governor’s duty, Crist said, is to represent all of the people. “It is not a sin,” he said, “to reach across the aisle. It is your obligation to work together.”
The Florida governor’s race is expected to draw a lot of attention and money from outside of the state. The Scott campaign has said it may spend $100 million and Democrats will seek to match it.