Bob Sparks: Don’t underestimate Crist’s ability to connect with people

Charlie Crist first ran for Governor in 2006. His victory marked the first time a Republican succeeded another Republican as Florida’s chief executive.

It is helpful to remember the circumstances at the time. Many of those same circumstances are present today.

Heading into the 2006 election, President George W. Bush had approval ratings hovering near 40 percent. Not many Republican candidates were eager to appear with him. Crist was one of them.

When asked the whereabouts of Crist at a Florida rally featuring Bush, Karl Rove furiously responded “Ask (Crist campaign manager) George Lemieux.”

The mid-term elections during a sitting president’s second term are normally difficult for the president’s party, but 2006 was a particularly tough year for Republicans. Democrats flipped seven seats in the Senate and 27 in the House to capture majorities in both chambers.

They also switched six governorships, but Florida was not one of them. Despite the national trends, Crist survived and pundits praised his victory as a sign that moderate Republicans were the future of the GOP.

How did President Bush react to the 2006 Republican debacle? He expressed his disappointment and added, “as the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility.” That is what leaders do.

Much has happened over the past eight years, but 2014 illustrates why we call each two-year election period a “cycle.” During that time, the state and the nation have come full cycle.

Today, President Barack Obama is hovering around 40 percent approval ratings. Like 2006, Crist, though now a Democrat, is a candidate for governor as a member of an unpopular President’s party.

As the campaigns draw to a close, Obama is doing precious little campaigning because he’s so unpopular. An Obama campaigned in Florida recently, but Crist was welcoming the President’s much more popular wife, Michelle.

Election Day is Tuesday and it’s likely that the Republicans will take control of the U.S. Senate and increase their numbers in the U.S. House.

Democrats do have some legitimate hope of picking up some governorships. Crist is one of those.

If things go as poorly for Democrats as expected on Election Day, will Obama take his cue from George W. Bush and accept the same level of responsibility?

With all the similarities from 2006, this year is a bit different. Crist sought an open seat that year, while this year he ran into Gov. Rick Scott’s $100 million campaign buzz saw.

Crist’s opponent in 2006, Congressman Jim Davis, had nowhere near the resources to drive up Crist’s negative numbers with attack ads. Scott, on the other hand, has a phone and a pen to both dial for dollars and sign checks. Both got millions of dollars in outside interest group funding.

Just a few days out, this race is tied. I won’t say it’s all about turnout because it is not worth the risk of finding the “thanks, Captain Obvious” emails in my inbox.

Democrats know turnout is more challenging in mid-term elections. This year they must get voters who are disappointed with Obama to the polls for Crist.

Republicans are doing well with absentee ballots, as they normally do, and are confident of turnout success on Election Day. Do middle-class occasional voters feel Scott’s message of job creation is enough to turn out in larger numbers for him?

If either of these candidates has a warm and fuzzy closing argument ad in the can, now is the time to roll it out.

Who will win? Few are offering predictions, but over the years far too many have underestimated Crist and his ability to connect with people.

They also underestimate his ability to adapt. He has won elections and he has lost some. The past decade provides case histories of both.

Scott has many of the advantages needed to win, including the power of incumbency. Perhaps he put a decisive dent into Crist’s previously respectable favorability numbers with the attack ads.

Crist is a survivalist. Does that characteristic change parties along with him? We will find out soon enough.

But those continuing to underestimate him do so at their peril.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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