In 2010, then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson were well-funded Republican Senate candidates supported by GOP leadership. Tonight, Crist speaks at the Democratic National Convention in support of President Obama and Grayson is the newly announced co-chairman of a political action committee formed by Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who will lead Democrats in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Those roles are an unpleasant reminder for Senate GOP leaders, especially Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of a lingering sore spot resulting from their early embrace of Crist and Grayson over eventual primary and general-election winners Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Those races contributed to the awkward relationship between Republican leaders and grassroots conservative voters that is on display as GOP Rep. Todd Akin continues his Senate campaign in Missouri.
Crist, a prolific fundraiser and popular governor, was an obvious recruit in 2009 but has embarrassed party leaders since he launched a failed independent bid after losing the GOP primary to Rubio in 2010. Akin, who has bucked calls by fellow Republicans, including McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas, to quit his race against Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., over his statement that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy, cited Crist’s support for Obama when telling supporters that the same “party bosses” pushing him to quit once hoped to make Crist a Republican senator.
Senate GOP leaders are publicly ignoring Crist. But GOP aides describe him as serial political opportunist eyeing a Florida gubernatorial run as a Democrat. Aides also noted that the NRSC quickly threw financial support behind Rubio, as well as Paul, after they won their 2010 primaries.
Crist’s situation is far different than Grayson’s, a point the Kentuckian, now director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, emphasized in an interview Wednesday. Grayson said he “hopes to be able to run” for office “again as a Republican.” He said he attended part of the Democratic National Convention “and I was reminded of why I am a Republican.”
Grayson, as he did in 2010, argued he was the more conservative candidate in the primary against the libertarian Paul in McConnell’s home state.
Grayson described his position as co-chairman with former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich of the “Gabby PAC” as “an honorary title.” The PAC was formed to help fund Democratic candidates “who favor working in a bipartisan way to find solutions to our challenges instead of partisanship and discord,” according to a PAC statement.
Grayson said he “was happy to lend my name” to the effort because he supports that goal and because he is friend with Giffords, who was shot in the head early last year and barely survived.
“I don’t expect to be very engaged with it,” Grayson said. “I don’t expect to be on the phone raising money. That certainly wasn’t part of my understanding.”
Whatever’s Grayson’s intent, his new job will not help McConnell in his continuing effort to shore up his ties with tea party-voters and other Paul backers in Kentucky. McConnell, who recruited and supported Grayson, is up for reelection in 2014. The Senate GOP leader, a proponent of early preparation who has acknowledged learning from Paul’s win, is keen to stave off any chance of a serious primary challenge—even as his supporters deny that is a real possibility in state where McConnell is credited with personally building up the GOP. Grayson’s role with a Democratic PAC could complicate that effort, just as his rejection of partisan politics is hard not to read as at least an implicit rebuke of McConnell.
Still, Republican aides called Grayson’s job insignificant. One GOP campaign strategist said that although Grayson “is a long way from being a Kentucky GOPer,” his absence from Kentucky and McConnell’s strong relationship with Paul mitigate any effect. “There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then,” said another Republican aide. “I don’t see how it has any relevance going forward.”
Grayson agreed, noting McConnell learned lessons from Paul’s win. “It’s been a long time, and he’s got a great record to run on,” Grayson said. “Whatever damage I caused him happened in 2010.”