Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is leaving the Republican Party to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent.
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is leaving the Republican Party to run for the U.S. Senate as an independent. Phil Coale/AP
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced Thursday he was dropping out of the Republican primary and running for the U.S. Senate as an independent.
"My decision to run for the United State Senate as a candidate without party affiliation in many ways says more about our nation and our state than it does about me," Crist said at a rally in St. Petersburg.
He acknowledged that it will be a tough challenge to run without the backing of either major party and said he'll now have to build his own network of volunteers and political donors.
"I don't have either party helping me. But I need you. I need you more than ever," the governor said, surrounded by cheering supporters carrying signs that included "Democrats for Crist."
The decision was immediately slammed by Republican leaders, including former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"This decision is not about policy or principles," Bush said. "It is about what he believes is in his political self-interest."
Crist was the heavy favorite last year, and was even among the Republican names bandied about in the 2012 presidential race. But the primary campaign quickly became a lost cause as the Tea Party movement embraced another candidate, Marco Rubio, and held up the governor's literal embrace of Obama last year as evidence that Crist was too liberal.
Crist's chances of winning as an independent appear slim. He's burned bridges with Republicans, and Democrats see his announcement as an opportunity for their own likely nominee, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek. The Senate has two independents — Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut — but neither had to fend off serious contenders from both parties in a general election.
Crist's outlook in the primary campaign, however, seemed even bleaker. One recent poll showed Crist more than 20 percentage points behind Rubio in the August primary, but Crist had a tiny lead when voters were asked whom they would pick in a three-way race with Rubio and Meek.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Thursday that Crist's future political aspirations would be "irreparably damaged" by an independent run. The committee plans to reverse itself Thursday and back Rubio for the general election.
Cornyn said he expects GOP donors to ask to have their contributions refunded, and added: "I will request the money that I've donated to his campaign from my leadership PAC back." Cornyn gave Crist $10,000 when he recruited the governor to run for the Senate in 2009.
Crist, who has $7 million on hand — about twice as much as Rubio — does not have to give back any contributions even if donors ask for them.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report