After a blistering primary campaign against conservative golden boy Marco Rubio, Florida’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist, is seriously considering taking the road less traveled: completing his U.S. Senate run as an independent.
He has good reason—and it’s not just because he’s trailing Rubio badly in the latest primary polls. The voters seem increasingly down on both Democrats or Republicans. In a recent Gallup poll, nearly four out of 10 voters polled identified themselves as independent rather than as belonging to either major party. Compare that to 1980, when an NBC exit poll found 25 percent of voters self-identifying as independents. In nine states, stretching from Maine to Iowa to Alaska, more voters are registered as unaffiliated than with either of the major parties. And Florida seems to be catching the wave: The number of independents there has grown 11 percent since 2008.
So far, those numbers have not helped install many self-proclaimed independent candidates in office. Of the nation’s 50 governors, not one is an independent. The same is true of the U.S. House. In the Senate, there are two independents—Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders—yet both caucus with the Democratic Party. Thus as Crist weighs his decision, he doesn’t have a huge bank of role models to draw from.
Still, New England might be a good place to look for some tips. At the moment, there are three independent candidates running credible campaigns for governorships. Eliot Cutler of Maine entered politics working as an aide for Sen. Edmund Muskie, later practicing international law, and is a big draw in a wide open field made up of five Democrats and seven Republicans. Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican senator from Rhode Island, is looking to return to public office after losing his 2006 reelection bid after one term. Chafee was defeated by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, but a difficult primary challenge helped Chafee make up his mind to leave the GOP after the election. Chafee holds a double-digit lead at the moment over Democratic State Treasurer Frank Caprio and Republican John Robitaille. In Massachusetts, State Treasurer Tim Cahill quit the Democratic Party to run against incumbent Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and the Republican challenger Charlie Baker. Cahill is in second place in the most recent poll.
What lessons do these campaigns offer for Crist’s run in Florida, assuming he does leave the GOP? The Daily Beast talked to Chafee, former two-term independent governor Angus King of Maine, and strategists working for the leading independent campaigns.
Admit it’s your best option. Crist can debate the merits of an independent candidacy all he wants. But he faces an April 30 deadline for deciding to run as a Republican or an independent (unlike many states, Florida does not allow a candidate to lose a party primary, then run in the fall as an independent). And given his poll numbers, jumping ship and going it alone may be his last best chance to become a U.S. senator. “Crist cannot win unless he runs as an independent,” says Keith Frederick, who is doing polling for Cahill, Chafee, and Cutler. According to the pollster, between Crist’s veto of a recent education-reform bill and his acceptance of stimulus money, “he is toast” in the eyes of the Republican rank-and-file.
It could be worse. The toughest part of being an independent is running a campaign without the benefit of a party structure, says Gov. Angus King, who served Maine as an independent from 1995 to 2003. “The biggest challenge for an independent is to be considered part of the game,” King says. But Crist, who is ahead of both Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek in a recent Quinnipiac poll, isn’t merely part of the game, he may be leading it. As Frederick notes, “Charlie Crist has a proven ability to appeal across the spectrum, and he’s got a ton of money.” (An advantage that independents rarely have.)
Prepare to be lonely. “All of us would like to have a political home,” Chafee says. “I know I would like to be part of something that is not just in Rhode Island.” Chafee squared off with his own Marco Rubio, Steve Laffey—another favorite of the Club for Growth crowd. And though Chafee bested Laffey, he certainly feels Crist’s pain as he goes through a similar challenge. Going it alone offers the freedom of not being tied to the national party. But it also means no visits from Air Force One, as Arlen Specter gets, after leaving the GOP to become a Democrat. In Crist’s case, the Republican establishment will want to have nothing to do with him. The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent a taunting note this week. The Democrats already have their candidate, and dyed-in-the-wool liberals are unlikely to trust a man who made a career with an “R” next to his name.
You’ll face fire from both sides—and have no gang to back you up. Stepping outside the party system liberates a candidate from having to trumpet tiresome ideological orthodoxies. But it also means you have no posse in a knife fight. Eliot Cutler is learning that the hard way in Maine, where someone in the employ of the Republican Governors’ Association has been following him around from event to event with a camera. He’s cried foul, only encouraging more in-your-face tactics. "It tells us we're going to need to follow him around a lot more, if it bugs him so much," one official told the Portland Press Herald. Crist, who has been skewered by his party’s right flank for a year now, at least has the advantage of being battle-tested in this regard.
You have some explaining to do. Opportunist. Sellout. Turncoat. These will be some of the nicer things that will be said of Crist if he makes the switch. Up in Massachusetts, Cahill has been dogged, at least in the press, by the impression that his independent run is about political expedience, rather than conscience. Chafee has sought to turn the tables, picking political battles on schools and taxation that have made him appear to be what they once called a maverick (a label that’s up for grabs, now that John McCain has pawned it). Perhaps Ronald Reagan had the best line, uttered in explaining why the former Democrat defected to the GOP: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
Write a book. Angus King, Maine’s independent governor from 1995 to 2003, said his book helped explain to voters that just because he was without a party didn’t mean he was without convictions. Chafee did the same, writing Against the Tide to make his case. Maybe Crist doesn’t have time to crank out a hardcover, but he’d be wise to hit the Op-Ed pages and the Sunday shows, and splash himself all over Florida’s 10 media markets seeking to explain what new, independent Charlie really believes. “Being an independent doesn’t mean you don’t believe in anything,” King says. “People think being a centrist means being part of the mushy middle. You just don’t necessarily share all of the beliefs of one of the other parties.”
Embrace being an army of one. Tad Devine, who is advising all three independent candidates in New England, says Crist should promise to caucus with neither party when he gets to Washington. “When you run for governor, you can truly say you are not going to be part of the caucus of either party. If he is going to run as an independent, maybe he should say he’ll join a Florida caucus. That would be pretty powerful.”
Nothing succeeds like success. This fall could provide a bumper crop of independents. It is entirely possible that among Cahill, Chafee, Cutler—and potentially Crist—three will emerge as winners on Election Day. Their success would rouse more credible independent candidates come 2012. Chafee said he noticed Evan Bayh and his $13 million war chest available for a possible presidential run. Then, there’s Michael Bloomberg, last seen grumbling about President Obama coming to New York and not informing City Hall about his visit, who is perennially mentioned as a possible independent candidate for president. Add to the mix the possibility of more moderate Republicans being squeezed out of the party (King said that his state’s two Republican senators, Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, “are the last of that breed”), and it’s quite possible we’ll see more candidates follow the road Crist is now pondering. “If they are successful,” Devine says, “I wouldn’t be surprise to see them talking to one another.” In that case, King says he sees an electorate eager for candidates: “If two or three of those people win, it’s going to awaken a large movement.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.