No one could've guessed it a few months ago, but by today, Charlie Crist's bailing on the Republican Party here in Florida surprised no one. Crist is set to make the announcement in about three hours. The other two candidates, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek, have conference calls with the press scheduled soon afterward. Rarely in history has a politician fallen so far, so fast without being at the center of some career-ending scandal -- the dead girl or live boy of Louisiana politician Edwin Edwards' famous quote, "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy."
The general take on this three way race has been that it will help Meek by splitting the Republican vote between Crist and Rubio. The New York Times opined, "No one would seem to benefit more from a Crist run as an independent than Kendrick Meek." South Florida's own Sun-Sentinel offered, "The potential Republican split bolsters chances that Democrat Kendrick Meek, of Miami, can come from behind to win the seat this fall."
The conventional wisdom is, as is often the case, completely wrong.
Crist is using the Lieberman model for his independent run. In the 2006 three-way Senate race in Connecticut, Lieberman ran to the right of the man who upset him in the Democratic primary, crowding out Republican candidate Alan Schlesinger, who was already polling terribly, and making it a two-way race between a center-right candidate and the liberal Ned Lamont. In Crist's case, it's a mirror image of that ploy. Crist will run to the left of far-right candidate Marco Rubio, hoping to crowd Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek out of the race and make it a choice between a centrist candidate (Crist) and an acknowledged conservative who will be caricatured in the coming days as a wingnut yahoo whose politics lie just to the left of Genghis Khan.
Indeed, Crist has already started appealing to the Democratic base, with his veto of the Republican state Legislature's execrable education bill and his reversal on offshore drilling in the wake of the disaster in the Gulf. (By the way, given that offshore-drilling move, is it ironic that when he first entered the limelight, I bestowed upon Charlie Crist the nickname "Big Slick"?)
So, when pundits pontificate on this three-way race and claim that a split in the Republican vote will help Meek, they are dead wrong. Instead, in the coming months, Crist will veer to the left to nullify Meek, thus splitting the Democratic vote. Unfortunately for Crist, his position isn't the same as that of Lieberman in 2006. For one, as I mentioned, Schlesinger was already polling terribly when Lieberman went for a three-way. Meek is not. His numbers may not be those of Crist or Rubio, but they're not Schlesinger-like single digits, and they'll only grow as he gains name recognition throughout the state in the lead-up to election day. Additionally, Democrats shamefully abandoned their candidate in Connecticut. Several Democratic senators -- Mary Landrieu, for example -- continued to support Lieberman after he went third party. And while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid endorsed Lamont, he also said that Lieberman would face no consequences in the Senate -- lost chairmanships, for example -- should he go independent. And here's another factor: Republicans, recognizing that their candidate didn't stand a chance in Connecticut, lined up behind Lieberman to prevent Lamont from seeing the inside of Congress. Lieberman's third-party run garnered support from Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Sen. Susan Collins and Republican then-congressman from Connecticut Chris Shays. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck all approved of Lieberman's run.
Now, contrast that with Florida. Meek is running far hotter than Schlesinger. The Republican Party has unilaterally supported Rubio over Crist, even telling Crist that, with this independent run, he is permanently blackballed from the GOP. On the other side, Democrats are standing fast behind Meek. Like everyone else, they buy into the conventional wisdom that Crist's independent candidacy hurts Rubio, not Meek, so they're backing their candidate more than ever, believing that he now has a shot at winning this thing.
Add all that up, and you get Crist and Meek tearing at each other over a few independent votes while Rubio gets all the conservatives and enough center-right moderates to arrive at 33 percent plus 1. I remained an unbeliever in Rubio's chances for far longer than most -- I found it hard to believe that ol' Big Slick could suffer such a dramatic implosion, especially given that he was popular across the political spectrum, except for the deep edges on either side. (Indeed, his approval numbers as governor remain closer to 60 than 50.) But I believe now. With Crist still in the Senate race as an independent candidate come election day, nothing will stop Marco Rubio from taking over.
That's Senator Wingnut to you, ace.