On Tuesday night, former Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist officially became the Democratic nominee for governor in the state. I reached out to Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith to talk to him about Crist's remarkable reinvention, his chances of becoming governor (again) and what it all means for the state of Florida's politics. Our conversation, edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: Four years ago today, Charlie Crist was the Republican governor of Florida. Today he is the Democratic nominee for governor. How the heck did he do it?
Adam: Crist is a unique and remarkable politician, especially in terms of retail politics and personal charm. But he would never be in this position if Florida's Democratic party weren't on life support. There was simply no bench of strong, well known Democratic candidates to step up and challenge even someone as vulnerable as [Gov.] Rick Scott. It also helped that Crist really was a moderate Republican governor, who made a lot of strong friends in key Democratic interest groups like the teachers union and trial lawyers.
FIX: There seemed to be unrest in some parts of the Democratic ranks about Crist as the nominee. Sen. Bill Nelson kept saying he might run. Does Crist need to worry about the party rallying behind him?
Adam: Yes. It's still not clear how deep or wide Crist's Democratic support runs, and there's no question he needs to do a much better job energizing Democratic voters to turn out than the last three Democratic nominees did. The widely-held belief that Crist could beat Rick Scott was one of Crist's strongest selling points to many activists and fundraisers. If Scott starts opening up a lead in the polls, I do wonder if that Democratic disenchantment might quickly grow.
FIX: Crist seemed to start the race against Governor Scott ahead. But, polling now shows it tie or Scott with a slight edge. Why?
Adam: Money. Scott has already spent about $23-million on TV, mostly attacking Crist, who has spent about a third as much. Crist also hasn't really faced a well-funded negative campaign against him before. Crist imploded on his own during the 2010 Republican U.S. Senate primary. [Now Sen.] Marco Rubio never even had to use some of the potentially most damaging attacks on Crist, such as his close ties to assorted donors who wound up behind bars.
FIX: President Obama won Florida twice. The state has a Republican governor and a split Senate delegation. So, what IS Florida politically right now? And what does who wins the governor's race tell us about that — if anything?
Adam: It's bizarre. Florida leans ever so slightly Democratic in high turnout presidential elections, but Democrats are virtually powerless and irrelevant in Tallahassee. No question the state is trending Democratic -- less white -- but until the party starts winning some statewide offices and more legislative races there's little opportunity to rebuild the party because Republicans have such a financial and organizational advantage. That's why Crist winning the governor's mansion would be a game changer in term of Democratic party building.