Trust Issue in Florida Governor Race

Member Group : Salena Zito

While much of the media pay attention to movement in this year’s U.S. Senate races (you know the drill; one of those moves two points, and everyone reacts as if it’s an avalanche), few are watching a contest with 2016 implications and a huge swing — the race for governor of Florida.

Less than a year ago, Republican incumbent Rick Scott was down 20 percentage points (58-38) to challenger Charlie Crist.

Crist is the former GOP governor who resigned to run for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination. When he lost in that primary, he became an independent to run in the general election. When he lost in the general, he became a Democrat to try to win back the seat he originally left.

Today, Scott not only has closed the gap but pulled a couple points ahead of Crist.

Now, no way is this race a done deal for Scott; it likely will go down to the wire. It also will come down to one word — trust.

Not trust of Scott; like him or not, everyone knows who he is and what he stands for. Yet no one knows who Crist is or what he stands for, aside from wanting power — and that knowledge could be his undoing.

"When any politician switches his or her party, the main issue with voters is always trust, period," said Jeff Brauer, a Keystone College political science professor.

He sees Crist’s candidacy as similar to the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter’s party switch in Pennsylvania: "Mostly, how the national Democrats supported Specter while the rank-and-file Democrats never really bought in."

Like Crist, Specter abandoned his party when he lost the support of his base, then lost spectacularly in a primary despite heavy support from the White House and national Democrats (but not from Pennsylvania Democrats). On election night he stood in a downtown Philly hotel ballroom, bewildered that the Obama secret sauce didn’t transfer to him.

Once again, the media are largely ignoring a major race in which President Obama’s political mafia comes to town, takes over a state party’s duties and runs its candidate — a candidate that Florida Democrats have spent a lifetime voting against, who has a record to scrutinize and oppose, who has switched parties so many times no one knows his core values.

Pennsylvania and Florida share some political characteristics, too, Brauer said. "Both have a swing electorate willing to vote for either Republicans or Democrats that is dominated by seniors, and both have an electorate where said trust is paramount."

Some key differences do not favor Crist.

Specter, while a party-switcher, stayed true to his ideology; he was a moderate, whether he was a Republican or a Democrat.

"Crist, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any ideology," Brauer said, pointing out that sometimes he acts very conservative (he became known as "Chain-gang Charlie" for his anti-crime positions) and sometimes he acts very liberal (he unabashedly supported the stimulus package of a newly elected president from the opposing party).

Through decades in public office, Crist has shown little interest in serious policy, Brauer said. "Instead, he has been a serial campaigner his whole career, doing and saying whatever he needs to win the next election or the next office and relying on his gregariousness and good looks for his success with the public and the media."

Another difference with Specter: Crist has incredible personal baggage, from several associates going to prison to his many relationship foibles gone public.

The length of the campaign has benefited Scott, who always struggles with popularity due largely to his dry, no-nonsense style; any examination of the facts was always going to help him. Crist had hoped for a book-tour type of campaign in which he could parachute in, do small events and then surge at the end.

Having Charlie Crist run for his old seat probably seemed a good idea in a political strategy room in Washington.

But Democrats fundamentally underestimated the power of competitive data; they took all of Charlie’s baggage in exchange for his name ID.

And Crist thought he would benefit from the mythical Obama secret sauce, which only seems to work for Obama — especially in heated midterm elections.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).

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