And then there was one: Crist ends his bid for the GOP Senate nomination to run with no party affiliation.
In the end, he didn't have that many choices.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, in perhaps a last-ditch effort to keep his political career alive, announced Thursday that he would drop out of the Republican primary for an open Senate seat and run for the job with no party affiliation.
Once the prohibitive favorite for the seat, Crist became a decided underdog after a series of both misjudgments and incidents that were out of his hands — including an increasingly assertive, anti-Washington conservative mood within the GOP.
Fall From Grace
Friday was the deadline for Crist to decide whether to stay in the Aug. 24 primary, or leave the GOP and run as an independent. Thursday, he chose the latter.
It was a steep fall for someone long seen as a leading party figure, both in Florida and nationally.
There are so many reasons for Crist's fall from grace, not the least of which was his early 2009 embrace of President Obama, who came to Fort Myers to sell his $787 billion economic stimulus program. It was not, fair to say, a move that went over well with conservatives. And it played perfectly into the hands of Marco Rubio, the former state House speaker also running for the Senate who enjoyed the backing of Tea Party activists. (See my Feb. 11 Junkie post, "The Danger of Looking For Amanda Hugginkiss.")
But it is far too simplistic to say it was just the Obama incident. The right, especially after eight years of Gov. Jeb Bush, never thought of Crist as someone with conservative principles. Many saw him as ambitious for the sake of ambition: run for state attorney general while thinking of running for governor ... run for governor while thinking of getting on the GOP ticket as vice president ... or, if that failed, run for the Senate. When Sen. Mel Martinez (R), who had already announced his retirement, decided to quit the Senate altogether, Crist, in deciding whom to appoint, hosted a bizarre audition of leading Sunshine State Republicans, only to settle on George LeMieux, his longtime ally and former campaign manager.
And then, when Rubio began winning straw poll after straw poll, the Crist campaign hardly responded ... other than to dismiss the results outright, saying that they have tons more money than Rubio and that ultimately the vote that counts is the Aug. 24 primary.
And, before we knew it, it was Rubio with the double-digit lead.
GOP's Conservative Uprising
Still, it's not completely fair to blame this all on Crist.
Obama became a deeply disliked/distrusted figure among conservatives, and while some in the GOP — such as New Jersey's Chris Christie, Virginia's Bob McDonnell and Massachusetts' Scott Brown — ran and won as fairly moderate candidates, both the congressional wing of the party and the newer group of candidates became more conservative.
The few Republicans who considered working across the aisle, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (SC) and Bob Corker (TN), heard from angry party folks back home. The Florida Republican Party that helped elect Crist to statewide office three times is not the Florida Republican Party of Thursday.
It was not a situation limited to Florida. Last fall, a historically Republican House seat in upstate New York fell to the Democrats in a special election because conservatives couldn't stomach the Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, who had socially moderate views that in the past would prevail in that part of the country.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas conservative who wanted to come home and become governor, came nowhere close in her bid to topple Rick Perry in the March primary because, well, Perry was far more conservative.
And Arizona Sen. John McCain tossed his maverick image over the cliff, perhaps forever, in adopting a much more harsh view of immigration ... probably because he faces a challenge in the primary by a much more conservative candidate.
With victory in the primary all but hopeless — scratch that, it was hopeless — Crist started looking at an alternative. A Quinnipiac poll in mid-May showed him leading both Rubio and likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek in a hypothetical three-way race. But Crist had begun looking at an independent run well before that.
Move Not Without Peril For Crist
By taking Thursday's step, Charlie Crist faces a whole world of unknowns. Can he raise the money to be competitive? (He was doing fine as a Republican, but the pipeline into GOP money is presumably shut.)
For that matter, after Thursday it's going to be difficult to imagine Crist enjoying even the limited support he has now among Republican voters. For Crist to win in November — and that is still not out of the realm of possibility — he is going to have to make inroads with the Democrats.
There are still questions how well Meek, the African-American congressman from Miami, can perform statewide. I'm sure Crist is looking at polling that discusses exactly that.
Color: NPR's Greg Allen, on the scene in St. Petersburg for Thursday's announcement, says there are several hundred Crist supporters mixed in with a contingent of Rubio backers. Some of the signs he sees: "Teachers Support Crist," "It's Not About The Parties, It's About The Future," and "Democrats for Crist." And there are some anti-Crist signs as well ... notably, "A Man Without A Party" and "Remember, YOU Left US."
For the record: Never has a third-party or independent Senate candidate won in Florida. The same, however, is not true with the gubernatorial contests. Sidney Catts was elected governor in 1916 as the candidate of the Prohibition Party. After Catts lost the Democratic primary that year, he was recruited by the Prohibitionists and won a three-way race that November.