Crist, Rubio Target Disaffected Voters

May 8th, 2010



This piece was originally published in National Journal.

Right now, there are two sources of discontent in the country. One is anti-government. The other is anti-politics. Both are on the Florida ballot this year.

The anti-government revolt, led by the tea party movement, has taken over the Republican Party. It is driven by conservative ideological outrage over Big Government — its spending, bailouts, deficits, and regulations. The movement is not just going after Democrats and moderate Republicans; it’s also targeting the Republican establishment.

Establishment GOP Senate candidates in California, Colorado, Indiana, and Kentucky are all facing serious primary challenges from the right. Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah may not even make it onto the Republican primary ballot. Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee and the ultimate establishment figure, is fighting a tea party challenge in his home state of Arizona.

The poster child of the anti-government movement is Marco Rubio, now a cinch to be the Republican nominee in Florida’s Senate race. Rubio has said that his rivals for the Senate seat vacated last year by Republican Mel Martinez “share the same unhealthy appetite for more government, more spending, and higher taxes.” Rubio has already achieved a notable victory: He drove the Republican governor out of his own party’s Senate primary. How’s that for giving the establishment the finger?

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is now running for the Senate as an independent. And he is trying to position himself as the leader of the anti-politics protest movement, which is less colorful and dramatic than the tea party movement but no less real. It is driven by frustration over the inability of politicians, particularly those in Congress, to solve the nation’s problems, especially unemployment. That frustration is most intense among independents, who are motivated by economic anxiety, not ideology. Their target: incumbents.

It’s ironic that Crist — a former state attorney general, education commissioner, and state senator — is fashioning himself as the leader of the anti-politics movement. But there he was, declaring, “My decision to run for the U.S. Senate as a candidate without party affiliation says more about our nation and our state than it says about me. Unfortunately, our political system is broken.”

Crist aimed his pitch at Florida voters “tired of the games and the name-calling and the politics of destruction.” He said later on CNN, “They see bickering, and they see nobody standing up and saying, ‘We’re all Americans; we’ve got to work together.’ ” That sounds like the anti-politics revolt led by Ross Perot in the 1990s — pragmatic, centrist, and committed to the view that politics is the enemy of problem-solving.

Both protest movements share disaffection with Democrats but for different reasons. Tea party supporters see Democrats as the party of Big Government. Anti-politics independents see Democrats as incumbents who control Congress and the White House. That’s why the Democrats are in so much trouble this year. The two movements are converging against them.

In Florida, however, the revolts are competing. And the contest is shaping up as one of the most remarkable in recent years. Crist, Rubio, and Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee, are all current or recent officeholders. Rubio is a former speaker of the state House; Meek is a four-term member of the U.S. House. All three candidates are trying to run as outsiders. Crist has no party affiliation. Meek is African-American. Rubio is a Cuban-American who challenged and chased an incumbent governor.

Meek, who is less well known statewide, suddenly looks as though he may have a chance to win if his rivals split the Republican vote. “Our two Republican opponents are architects of Florida’s failed economy,” Meek said. Rubio is counting on a different kind of split: “I’m running against two candidates … who support the Obama agenda,” he told Fox News.

What about Crist? He doesn’t start out with much of a base. Independents make up only 22 percent of the Florida electorate. In a Quinnipiac poll last month, just 38 percent of them said they would vote for Crist as an independent candidate. But by standing up to the tea party, Crist might attract some Democratic support.

At least theoretically, a three-way race can be won with just over a third of the vote. That gives Rubio and Meek an incentive to rally their bases — the tea party Right, the liberal Left. That’s exactly what Crist would like them to do — and leave the broad, disaffected center for him.