Having closely covered the 2010 Senate race, Crist's assertion that the Republican party's views on race -- and, in particular, its views on President Obama -- are what led him to leave the party doesn't jibe with what actually happened. "He was happy as a Republican when the polls showed him leading Marco Rubio by 20 points," said Adam Smith, the political editor at the Tampa Bay Times. "Apparently he discovered racism in the party after the polls showed him trailing Rubio by 20 points."
When Crist entered the open seat Senate race in 2009, he was widely seen as the de facto Republican nominee and a heavy favorite to be the next Senator from the state. He appointed his political lieutenant, George Lemieux, to serve as the interim Senator until the 2010 election happened. (Sen. Mel Martinez had resigned the seat.) The National Republican Senatorial Committee endorsed his candidacy. Polling showed him with a massive lead. Entreaties were made to then state Rep. Marco Rubio, who was also running for the nomination, to reconsider his bid and instead run for state Attorney General.
But, then something happened. A photo of Crist hugging President Obama began to make the rounds in Republican circles. (Obama was in the state in February 2009 to tout the economic stimulus.) Here's the photo.
That picture became symbolic of all of the doubts that many conservative Republicans had long held about Crist -- despite his easy victory in the 2006 gubernatorial race. It epitomized for many within the Republican base that Crist lacked any core principles or beliefs and, instead, simply went with whatever was popular at the moment. (Obama was quite popular -- in Florida and everywhere else -- in February 2009.)
In announcing his decision to leave the GOP, Crist focused entirely on the failure of the two political parties, making absolutely no mention of race (or any other factor) in explaining his choice.
"Our political system is broken," Crist said. "I haven't supported an idea because it's a Republican idea or a Democratic idea. I support ideas that I think are good for the people," he said. He insisted that voters are "tired of the games and the name-calling and the political destruction."
Crist's rhetoric reflected reality. He needed to win both Democratic and Republican votes if he had any chance at winning the general election. (He didn't win -- or come very close.) Alienating either party would have badly hurt his standing. Crist did what made sense politically: Cast his decision as an act of conscience when faced with a two-party system that was not serving the needs of its people.
So why then is Crist changing his story now? Again, politics seems to be the obvious answer. Crist is running for governor in 2014, this time as a Democrat. (Crist officially became a Democrat in December 2012.) His biggest problem in that race against Gov. Rick Scott (R)? Ongoing trepidation from some within the Democratic base about his commitment to core party principles. (There's a reason that Sen. Bill Nelson keeps refusing to totally shut the door on a primary challenge to Crist.) By rewriting the history of why he left the Republican party -- and by turning it into a moral decision driven by racism rather than a political one driven by fear of losing -- Crist is hoping to answer any lingering doubts that the Democratic base might have about him.
"Charlie has long enjoyed a magical ability to pretend that his words, his history, and his record are infinitely flexible and subject to redefinition at any moment," said Florida-based Republican consultant Rick Wilson.
It's a strategy that could work. But, that doesn't change history.