Will Fla. Gov. Crist Decide To Run For Senate?
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This next moderate we'll be hearing from is staying a Republican. But Florida Governor Charlie Crist is contemplating a different sort of switch. He's expected to announce whether he'll remain governor or run for the Senate in 2010. Republican Senator Mel Martinez is retiring, and Crist is interested in the job. Although he's very popular in Florida, there are signs that Crist could face significant challenges if he runs for the Senate. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: Some recent polls give Charlie Crist nearly a 70 percent approval rating among voters in Florida. Crist has done it by reaching across party lines, working with Democrats on voting on environmental issues. He's also developed a reputation as something of a populist, standing up against insurance companies who wanted rate hikes being one example. Those actions rankled many conservative Republicans. And then in February, Governor Crist appeared with President Obama in Fort Myers, campaigning for passage of the stimulus package.
(Soundbite of applause)
Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): This issue of helping our country is about helping our country. This is not about partisan politics. This is about rising above that, helping America and reigniting our economy.
ALLEN: Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, says that appearance sent a chilling message to the Republican base in Florida. And he says the recent switch of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter from the Republican to the Democratic Party raises additional questions.
Mr. SID DINERSTEIN (Chairman, Palm Beach County Republican Party): We Republican voters all of a sudden are looking at our senators or Senate candidates and are saying, is this going to be the guy who turns on the base on a key issue as Arlen Specter has done so many times?
ALLEN: If Charlie Crist decides to seek a second term as governor, most analysts consider him a shoe-in. But at the same time, the consensus among political observers in Florida is that he's going to run for the Senate. If he does, he'll also have to deal with conservative groups from outside Florida. In recent races nationwide, one well-funded group, the Club for Growth, has been active in targeting moderate Republicans, supporting conservative candidates in the primary.
Andrew Roth is Club for Growth vice president.
Mr. ANDREW ROTH (Club for Growth): From what we've seen so far of his record, we're not very impressed. He supported Obama's stimulus package. He's also -was very hostile to the insurance industry in Florida, driving them out of the state. So right now we're very concerned about his record.
ALLEN: And of course Crist would also face challenges from Democrats. Last week, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee released its first TV ad of the year and it was aimed at Charlie Crist.
(Soundbite of television ad)
Unidentified Man: Christ enjoys being governor when he attends basketball games and Super Bowl activities, and when he takes over 60 days off with no schedule. But now, the job's getting tough, and Christ wants out, leaving Floridians with a mess.
ALLEN: Barack Obama carried Florida in November. And Democrats are hoping that momentum will carry over into next year's Senate race. One of the Democrats running, Congressman Kendrick Meek, is an African-American from South Florida who already has $2 million in the bank. On the Republican side, if he runs for the Senate, Crist will face at least one conservative challenger in the primary, former State House Speaker Marco Rubio, who just announced he's entering the race. And Palm Beach County GOP chair, Sid Dinerstein, says several top Republican officeholders now have their eyes on the governor's mansion.
Mr. DINERSTEIN: It concerns me because if he runs for the Senate, every seat of power in the state then is up for grabs, meaning that we could, on a really bad day, have a Democratic governor, a Democratic attorney general. And of course the governor would go to the Senate, but he would be a moderate Republican.
ALLEN: Ideological purity aside, Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, says for Republicans, there's still that perennial political question.
Professor SUSAN MacMANUS (University Of South Florida): Do you wan to win, or do you not? And Crist is very popular right now, and I think that's one of those questions that Republicans are going to have to ask themselves.
ALLEN: Whether Crist runs or not, Florida's Senate contest next year is likely to be one of the most closely watched and expensive races in the nation, with each candidate expected to spend as much as $30 million.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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