Crist announces run as Independent

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist decried a broken political system Thursday in announcing his expected run as an Independent.

The former Republican billed himself as a pragmatic problem solver during the press conference in St. Petersburg, and said he had always worked for the benefit of his state and its people, and not for a party.

“I haven’t supported an idea because it’s a Republican idea or it’s a Democratic idea. I support ideas that I believe are good ideas for the people,” he said Thursday.

“Frankly for me, it’s always been that simple,” said Crist, who billed himself as a servant of the people. 

He said he would need help from his supporters in Florida now more than ever because he is in “uncharted territory” without the help of either party.

“I’m counting on you," he said. "And I’ll be with you forever.” 

His supporters broke into chants of “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie” during the speech. “I love ya,” Crist said.

The governor noted he could have stayed in the GOP primary, but he didn't want a "club" to decide his political fate.

“I could have chosen to stay in the primary, but frankly for me it’s your decision. It’s not one club’s decision or another -- or even a club within that club," he said.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called Crist’s departure from the primary “disappointing.”

“To be sure, he left this party,” Steele said in a statement. “This party did not leave him. His decision will in no way impede our path to victory in Florida.”

The governor's widely anticipated switch makes the race a toss-up between Crist, Republican Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioColbert: Students taking action on gun violence 'give me hope' Lawmakers feel pressure on guns Florida lawmaker's aide fired after claiming shooting survivors were 'actors' MORE and Democrat Kendrick Meek.

It allows Crist to avoid what was predicted to be a humiliating defeat at the hands of Rubio, the former state House Speaker, who was far ahead of the governor in polls of GOP voters. 

Rubio immediately sought to link Crist with Meek.

“I now look forward to debating issues and ideas with Governor Crist and Congressman Meek, who share the same unhealthy appetite for more government, more spending and higher taxes,” the former state House speaker said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Meek noted he was now up against two Republicans.

“Our two Republican opponents are architects of Florida's failed economy, both favor more tax breaks for the wealthy and corporate special interests as their only economic proposal, and both are involved in the same income tax evasion scandal,” he said in a statement.

Crist’s move will cost him the support of his party’s infrastructure, and possibly that of his staff and consultants.

The head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said Thursday it plans to fully support Rubio. Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers feel pressure on guns Kasich’s campaign website tones down gun language after Florida shooting Murphy: Trump’s support for background check bill shows gun politics ‘shifting rapidly’ MORE (Texas) said Crist's withdrawal from the primary “will end our support and we will throw our support enthusiastically behind the Republican nominee, Marco Rubio.”

Cornyn also said he would ask Crist to return the $10,000 his leadership PAC donated to the governor's campaign -- likely the first of many such refund requests.

Still, polls suggest Crist has a chance in a three-man race, and the governor seemed eager for the challenge.

“It is a decision for all the people of Florida to be able to make. And so that’s why we go straight to November. We give you the chance to make that decision,” Crist told supporters. “It's the right thing for Florida.”

GOP leaders were initially enthusiastic about Crist's Senate run.

The national party endorsed him early in the process in order to avoid spending money on a costly Senate race. Crist led in the polls, raised millions and was on track to be crowned the Republican nominee.

But as Rubio, a favorite of the Tea Party movement, gained traction in the polls and started bringing in the money, the national party began to shift its support.

This story was posted at 5:53 p.m. and updated 6:53 p.m.