Everyday, another Republican politician lends support to Marco Rubio, the candidate who is challenging Florida Governor Charlie Crist in the upcoming Senate election. A recent poll, however, shows that while Rubio would trounce Crist in the Republican primary, Crist would win a 3-way general election against Rubio and Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek, if he decided to run as an Independent.
There is a simple explanation for these poll results. Crist is a centrist. He embraced the stimulus package and other policies of the Obama administration. Furthermore, he recently vetoed a controversial bill that would have ended tenure for public school teachers and linked their salaries and recertification to student performance on standardized tests. Republican leadership strongly favored the legislation.
Florida is a purple state. Bill Clinton lost Florida by less than 2 percent of the vote in 1992, but he won the state in 1996. George W. Bush won Florida by a hair in 2000 and by a few points in 2004. And in 2008, Obama carried the state by a slight margin. The state has a number of Independent voters, and registered Republicans and Democrats have crossed party lines in recent elections. Crist's appeal among moderate voters makes him a viable threat in a general election (which is what makes this analysis so bankrupt).
By contrast, Florida has closed primaries. Thus, only Republicans can vote in the primary pitting Crist against Rubio. Typically, a party's base is most influential in primary elections. And in the South, this means that conservatives have a loud voice in Republican primaries. Conservatives are not happy with Crist-the-moderate. The general election, however, is a completely different ideological contest. If Crist ran as an Independent, there is a strong possibility that he would defeat the Republican and Democratic candidates.
So, when Republicans like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani endorse Rubio, they are only trying to marginalize Crist and to make him unpopular. They also want to let him know that he could suffer politically among Republicans if he runs as an Independent. But these calculations might not impact Crist's decision. If Crist decides that he values winning over running as a Republican, he could jump ship and seek the Senate position as an Independent. On this issue, the scenario looks a lot like Joe Lieberman's Independent run in Connecticut (except that the state is liberal, but open to moderate Democrats and Republicans).