The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charlie Crist didn’t leave the Republican party because of racism. He left it because he couldn’t win a primary.

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Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist made waves this week when he told Fusion's Jorge Ramos that one of the main drivers behind his decision to leave the Republican party in 2010 was race. "I couldn’t be consistent with myself and my core beliefs, and stay with a party that was so unfriendly toward the African-American president, I’ll just go there,” Crist said. “I was a Republican and I saw the activists and what they were doing, it was intolerable to me.”

Um, not exactly.

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."

First, the facts.

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.)

Is it possible -- and even probable -- that some of the resentment toward Crist was fueled by racist sentiments directed at the newly elected President? Sure.  But, it's hard to imagine that "The Hug" became such a big deal among Florida Republicans solely because of the fact Crist was hugging an African American man.  The case Rubio made against Crist's conservative bona fides went well beyond "The Hug".Take this comment from Rubio in a March 2010 nationally televised debate between the two candidates: "I voted for you because I trusted you when you said you would be a Jeb Bush Republican. Your record was something very different. You signed a budget that raised taxes. You tried to oppose the cap and trade system in Florida. You appointed liberal supreme court justices to our supreme court." (Crist also vetoed an education bill that would have linked teacher pay to test scores in April 2010, a piece of legislation strongly supported by conservatives.)

Crist stayed in the Republican race long after "The Hug". In fact, the impetus for him leaving the Republican party seemed to be his precipitous decline in his primary fight against Rubio -- nothing more, nothing less. Crist announced his decision to leave the GOP and continue his Senate run as an independent -- Rep. Kendrick Meek wound up being the Democratic nominee -- on April 29. That was more than a year after the hug -- and almost a month to the date since Crist told Rubio in that Fox News Channel debate: " I think we can both agree we're both good conservatives." So, what was happening in the spring of 2010 that might have led Crist to change his mind on his party affiliation? An epic collapse in his poll numbers.  This chart via Real Clear Politics of the public polling in the race through mid April 2010 tells the story better than we ever could.

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.