A Tale of Two Conventions for Charlie Crist

The former Florida governor took on a much more public role at the DNC in 2012.

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
July 28, 2016, 4:35 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA—Four years after Charlie Crist delivered a prime-time address at the Democratic National Convention, the former Florida governor had a much more muted presence this week.

As he seeks another political comeback, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat has mostly kept out of the public eye since arriving in town Monday.

By Thursday morning, his only public appearances had been a day earlier at a Florida delegation breakfast and at the Wells Fargo Center, and his name has rarely popped up in news stories from the convention.

“It certainly is lower-profile,” Crist said in a phone interview. “At the last one, I spoke to the entire convention. It’s different.”

A decade removed from his last electoral victory, Crist is now the slight favorite in Florida’s 13th District, which became more Democratic-leaning this cycle under the state’s revised congressional map.

It had been an open seat, but Crist's path grew more complicated last month when Republican Rep. David Jolly dropped his Senate bid to instead seek reelection. Most still give Crist the edge in a district President Obama would have carried with nearly 55 percent of the vote in 2012.

Speaking as an independent at the last convention, Crist praised Obama and recounted why he abandoned the GOP. “I didn’t leave the Republican Party,” Crist told the crowd then. “It left me.”

The high-profile speech was widely covered by national and local news outlets, as the former Republican governor backed the Democratic president for reelection. But it’s not exposure Crist is looking for this time.

In 2012, “he was there to be a validator for moderates,” Florida-based Democratic consultant Steve Schale said. “This time, he’s a Democratic candidate for Congress, and really the most important thing he can do [at the DNC] is meet donors.”

Indeed, reporting a story Tuesday on Hillary Clinton donors mingling at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia, The New York Times spotted Crist walking through the bar.

“This is a good place to be—for a lot of reasons,” Crist told the Times. “We must have set up five fund-raisers today. This is the bank.”

His visit to the delegation breakfast Wednesday was not part of his initial schedule. In the interview with National Journal, Crist said he had planned to attend an overlapping event with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan but skipped it because of traffic.

A handful of breakfast attendees said Crist “worked the room," meandering through the expansive space for nearly an hour.

“Many got a handshake, many got a hug,” Florida delegate David Singer said. “His conversion to the Democratic Party is complete.”

Crist’s path there was unique. As a Republican, he succeeded Jeb Bush as governor in 2007, then opted to run in the open-seat Senate race in 2010. That’s where his conversion began, as Marco Rubio overcame a significant early-polling and financial disadvantage in the primary, leading Crist to drop out of the nomination battle. He instead ran as an independent, finishing second but well behind Rubio in the three-way race.

After endorsing Obama for reelection, he signed his Democratic party-registration form at the White House Christmas Party in 2012 ahead of launching his comeback campaign for the governor’s mansion in the 2014 cycle. He challenged Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who defeated him by 1 point.

Despite his recent losing streak and GOP past, Crist is personally popular among Democrats. Before a Florida delegation breakfast earlier this week, former Sen. Bob Graham praised Crist as an experienced and well-known candidate. The two ran against each other for Senate in 1998, when Crist lost as a Republican.

In the campaign, “there were a few sharp elbows,” Graham said, while riding an escalator up to a ballroom. “But mainly we talked about the things that the people were interested in.”

In his current race, Crist had $671,000 in his campaign account to Jolly’s $409,000 at the end of June. For now, Jolly does not have guaranteed support from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has accused Jolly of lying about the organization’s fundraising practices on a CBS 60 Minutes broadcast.

On Friday, NRCC Chairman Greg Walden left room for reconciliation, saying on C-SPAN Newsmakers he would speak with Jolly to see "what kind of race he wants to run.”

Jolly’s campaign had no comment on the development but eagerly denounced Crist’s convention trip.

“The national Democrats are always trying to decide local elections, so while Charlie's hobnobbing up north, Jolly is on the ground like he was last week serving his community and doing his job,” Jolly spokesman Max Goodman said. “It's the reason he will win in November."

The day Jolly announced he would mount a comeback bid to the House, the DCCC quickly publicized Jolly’s own statement on the newly drawn district last year, when he said that “virtually every person in the political sphere will tell you no Republican can win” there. Jolly acknowledged the difficulty when he reentered the race, saying, “I am not naïve with the challenge we are undertaking.”

Democrats are not taking any chances. The party’s main allied super PAC, House Majority PAC, has booked $1.5 million in TV time in the district, where the presidential race is expected to dominate the airwaves.

If Crist wins, he would join a group of only four other former governors who have gone on to hold House seats during the 20th and 21st centuries, according to the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog. The list includes current Republican Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Asked if the transition would be a strange move, Graham, also an ex-governor, said, “It is somewhat unusual, but John Quincy Adams went from the White House to the House of Representatives.”

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