Crist no GOP savior

2010 isn’t looking good for Senate Republicans. They face uphill climbs in holding open seats in Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio, and they’re looking shaky in Kentucky and North Carolina. Although Democratic Connecticut looks competitive, and maybe Delaware if GOP Rep. Mike Castle runs for Senate, Republicans will almost certainly lose ground for a third straight election,  pushing Democrats well past the 60-seat mark.

Groundwork for a poor showing is being laid this year. Despite multiple gambits by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to clear the way for a more electable candidate in Kentucky, incumbent Jim Bunning refuses to retire. In Illinois, Republican dreams of drafting Rep. Mark Kirk, one of the few House Republicans left representing a Democratic district, were recently dashed as Kirk opted to stay in the House. There’s Pennsylvania and Sen. Arlen Specter’s party switch, of course, and even Texas is shaky — rumors abound that incumbent Kay Bailey Hutchison may quit her seat early to focus on her gubernatorial run, giving Democrats a mid-cycle pickup opportunity.

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But Republicans got a dose of rare good news Monday when popular Florida Gov. Charlie Crist announced a run for his state’s open Senate seat. What had been a top Democratic pickup opportunity now looks much tougher. Crist isn’t a sure thing in head-to-head polling — a Quinnipiac University poll in early April gave him a 47-27 advantage against a generic Democrat — but it would certainly be his race to lose.

That is, if he makes it out of his primary. Like Pennsylvania, Florida’s primary is closed, giving the state’s conservative activists an outsized voice in determining their nominee. And like Pennsylvania’s Specter, Crist is seen as an apostate for supporting and campaigning for President Obama’s stimulus bill.

“Charlie Crist left us,” said Tony DiMatteo, a Republican state committeeman from Pinellas County. “We don’t need another Arlen Specter. We need Republican senators, and Marco Rubio would be one of those senators.”

Rubio is a 37-year-old Cuban-American lawyer and former Speaker of the Florida House straight out of central casting for telegenic young Republicans. And his message is one that will resonate with the increasingly isolated and fringe conservative base, one that cheered Specter’s exit and is now clamoring for Maine’s two Republican senators to follow suit. Indeed, Rubio is one of them: “If you agree with Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe on some of these issues, you might as well become a Democrat.”

 A Mason-Dixon poll from early April found just 23 percent of Republicans would definitely vote for Crist, compared to 18 percent who would “definitely not.” There’s a lot of room there for Rubio to exploit. “I don’t think we have a shrinking movement, we have a shrinking party,’’ says Rubio, countering calls from some in the GOP to moderate its unpopular positions. “If the Republican Party is not going to be an effective and authentic alternative to what the Democratic Party is offering, it will continue shrinking.”

Conservative talk radio has been savaging Crist, and the Club for Growth appears eager to engage. “America faces the prospect of unsustainable spending under President Obama, making it all the more important to support candidates who will reduce the debt and lower the tax burden,” said Club President Chris Chocola. “Speaker Rubio’s announcement is good news for Florida’s families and businesses, and I welcome his entry in the race.”

Crist may be popular statewide, but that is of little interest to a conservative movement more interested in ideological purity than embracing its best chance at holding that Senate seat.


Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos .