Fla. Governor's Senate Bid Renews Optimism of Some in GOP

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's announcement yesterday that he will run for the Senate is being cast by Republicans as a sign that their political fortunes are turning for the better with the emergence of a new crop of moderate voices lining up for 2010 races.

"It's a big tent with plenty of room for the Charlie Crists of this world," said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary, of the current state of the GOP.

Crist, who was elected governor in 2006 after a stint as Florida's attorney general, is the most high-profile of a series of middle-of-the-road Republicans being recruited by National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman John Cornyn (Tex.), a list that includes Rep. Mark Steven Kirk in Illinois and Rep. Michael N. Castle in Delaware.

Cornyn's recruiting efforts suffered a blow last week when former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a prominent Republican moderate, passed on the Keystone State's Senate race. And, as Democrats are quick to say, not every Republican recruit is a moderate -- they note the conservative bona fides of a pair of top Senate contenders, former congressman Rob Portman in Ohio and Rep. Roy Blunt in Missouri.

"We're looking at each race on a state-by-state basis to ensure that we have Republican candidates that fit their states next November," Cornyn said.

Still, Cornyn's decision to not only enlist Crist for the race but also endorse him moments after his candidacy became official -- despite the fact that former state House speaker Marco Rubio, a favorite of conservatives, is also running -- is a sign that Republican leaders charged with recruiting candidates for 2010 have made clear where they come down in the dispute between the GOP's moderate wing and its conservative faction. Crist was on the list of potential running mates for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) last year but was also one of the most outspoken Republican governors in arguing for President Obama's stimulus package.

Alex Vogel, a Republican lobbyist who worked at the NRSC earlier this decade, suggested that the recent switch of Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) to the Democratic Party opened a lot of eyes to the need to find candidates who can win rather than simply satisfy an ideological checklist.

"Crist can expect a groundswell of support among pragmatic, effective and 'victory-oriented' Republicans," Vogel said. "As the huge Tom Ridge boomlet revealed, Republicans are hungry for proven leadership, proven winners who can appeal outside a sliver of talk radio junkies."

Kirk and Castle, who are expected to make decisions about Senate bids in the very near future, are among the most liberal members of the House Republican caucus, but both would be running in states that voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008; Obama won Illinois and Delaware with about 62 percent of the vote.

The focus on recruiting moderates to begin the task of rebuilding the GOP amounts to a survival tactic for a party that has experienced steep losses over the past several elections as its vote base eroded. In the 2006 and 2008 elections combined, Democrats picked up 54 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate -- pending the outcome of the election contest in Minnesota, where Al Franken (D) leads Norm Coleman (R).

In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 21 percent of respondents described themselves as Republicans, the lowest percentage in that poll since the fall of 1983.

The Florida primary between Crist and Rubio could serve as a litmus test of whether attempts by Republican leaders in Washington to broaden the party are acceptable to grass-roots activists, who tend to be more conservative and bristle at interference from the national party chiefs.

While Crist is backed by the NRSC, as well as by Reps. Connie Mack and Vern Buchanan, Rubio has a strong base of support in the state party, including many of those aligned with former governor Jeb Bush.

Fred Davis, a Republican consultant who led McCain's advertising team during the 2008 election, called the primary a "microcosm of the entire restructuring of the Republican Party in one race" that features "a moderate Republican and a true conservative Republican."

In a Web video released by Rubio to coincide with Crist's announcement, an image of the governor and Obama is shown while a narrator intones that "too many politicians embrace Washington's broken ways." The ad also bashes Crist for supporting Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan.

Two Florida Democrats, Rep. Kendrick B. Meek and state Sen. Dan Gelber, are expected to compete for their party's nomination.

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