Is Charlie Crist the face of a new Republican Party, or a harbinger of the GOP's demise?
He's handsome, personable and popular: a dream candidate for Florida's 2010 Senate race. And Charlie Crist, currently the Sunshine State's Republican governor, will probably win. That makes him a good thing for the Republican Party, right?
Yes and no. The GOP is desperate for another vote -- or 10 -- in the Senate, so Crist's bid sounds like good news to the ears of the party's Senate leaders. With his moderation on fiscal policy, his populist crusade against insurance companies and a rather solid record on right-wing social policy, Crist would seem to be a pretty palatable offering to conservative suburbanites, and perhaps even offers a model for the recovery of the national party -- that is, if his candidacy doesn't smash it up for good.
That's a serious "if". While Crist doesn't quite divide the party six ways to Sunday, his candidacy does slice it up in several. First, there's the Latino problem. Barack Obama's popular victory in 2008 is arguably owed to a significant shift of Latinos from the Republican to the Democratic column, thanks to right-wing demagoguery on immigration. Florida's Latino Republican leaders, reports Politico's Ben Smith, are hopping mad over the early embrace of the Crist candidacy by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, over former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a young Cuban-American conservative.
Then there's the religious right, many of whose members have never forgiven Crist for his role, as Florida's attorney general, in allowing life support to be withdrawn from Terri Schiavo, a woman in a vegetative state whose fate became a cause célèbre of right-wing Catholics and evangelicals. (Crist defines himself as "pro-life", supporting parental notification laws and a ban on certain abortion procedures.) Right-wingers, both religious and secular, are furious with Crist not only for his happy acceptance of federal stimulus money from the Obama plan, but for Crist's decision to stand with the popular Democratic president at a campaign-style rally touting the stimulus.
Florida's business community is none too pleased with Crist's campaign, in the wake of Hurricane Rita, against insurers who appeared to be stiffing their policy-holders. Crist's crusade resulted in the creation of a state-run insurer, the Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which commercial insurers portray as unfair competition.
As if that wasn't enough, Crist's increasing shift to the right on social policy may be canceled out by the documentary film, Outrage, which reports on persistent rumors that Crist is a closeted gay man -- even as he states positions against marriage rights for LGBT people and his support for Florida's ban on adoption by LGBT folks. (Florida's law is the only such adoption ban in the country; some 4,000 adoptable Florida children languish in foster care.) As shown in Outrage, which opened nationwide just days before Crist announced his Senate bid, the allegations of Crist's accusers are likely to rankle not only the right, but stand to alienate voters who may not care whether their governor is gay or straight, but who do care about his veracity and integrity -- or lack thereof.
The film highlights the reporting of Bob Norman of the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, who followed a trail of dinner party conversations between sources and a male member of former Rep. Katherine Harris's staff (you remember her as the woman presiding over the recount of Florida's 2000 presidential vote), to fuel a provocative, if inconclusive, story about Crist's orientation. Norman also followed a deposition given by a friend of man said to be involved with Crist. "Charlie very smoothly denied that he knew or remembered knowing either of these people," Norman told filmmaker Kirby Dick. Then, Dick says, the two men named in his report left Florida until after Crist won his election.
The film looks more broadly at the cases of other anti-gay politicians who are believed to be gay themselves, or who have been successfully "outed" by their own behavior (Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, former Virginia Rep. Ed Scrock and others) -- most of them exposed by Mike Rogers of BlogActive, who focuses on senators and members of Congress who oppose LGBT rights.
Of anti-gay politicians who are privately having same-sex affairs, Rogers says to Dick, "They are traitors to their people...They are working against the [very] community they then expect to protect them."
In Outrage, Crist is heard in a radio interview saying that he believes marriage to be "a sacred relationship between a man and a woman, like my mother and father had, and like I had before I got divorced." (He is speaking here of his first marriage, which lasted six months; he married again last year, as his name was floated for the vice presidential slot on the McCain ticket.) Later in the film, Crist is heard telling a newscaster that he has "no second thoughts" on Florida's ban on adoptions by same-sex couples.
So far, the accusations seem not to have affected Crist's campaign. As governor, he still enjoys a 64 percent approval rating (Quinnipiac), is all but certain to survive a primary challenge by Rubio, and is a strong contender against Democrat Kendrick Meek, the congressman poised to challenge him in the general Senate election. But once ensconced on Capitol Hill, Crist will doubtless have Rogers on his trail, a perilous fate for any politician who votes against LGBT rights.
Charlie Crist will likely win a Senate seat for the Republican party, but the cost of his win to the GOP may be far greater than the millions that party leaders will pour into making it happen. For a party focused for so long on appeasing the most vituperative voices of its vaunted base, the ascendance of Charlie Crist represents a point of departure from which the GOP will not easily return.