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04.29.10

The Charlie Crist Blame Game

As Florida’s Senate hopeful bolts the GOP to become an independent, conservatives are railing about the national GOP’s record of placing bad bets. Benjamin Sarlin on the rumblings in the ranks.

Charlie Crist’s decision to announce as an independent today puts Republican leaders in an awkward spot. Many of them, after all, wooed the Florida governor to enter the Senate race in the first place—only to watch Crist’s defeat in the GOP primary become a mission for conservative activists nationwide.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and its current leader, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, are directly in the line of fire. Last May, Cornyn gave Crist his heartfelt endorsement. "With his record of reform in Florida, I know that Governor Crist will bring a fresh perspective to Washington in our efforts to fight for lower taxes, less government, and new job creation for all Americans," Cornyn said, in throwing the committee’s weight behind the governor.

“I think it speaks to the danger of thinking that the judgment of a small number of people on Capitol Hill can effectively predict the outcome of a contested primary in a state 1,000 miles away,” said California Senate candidate Chuck DeVore.

Now, a year later, Cornyn is backpedaling as fast as he can. He’s expressed regret for his endorsement—and demanded that Crist return all the money he donated to the campaign. Popular conservative sites like RedState have spent months attacking the NRSC over its Crist endorsement.

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The conservative disaffection with Crist started a year ago last February. President Obama was desperate to find some Republican support for his $787 billion stimulus plan, and nobody in Washington was biting. So he traveled to Florida, where Crist not only backed the plan, he engaged in a warm embrace with the president. The hug drove conservatives crazy. The divorce was completed just last week, when Crist vetoed an education bill that was considered sacrosanct among the Florida GOP faithful.

But the unrest doesn’t stop at Crist’s door. Richard Viguerie, a veteran GOP fundraiser and chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, said that Cornyn’s endorsement was symptomatic of a deep disconnect between the party and its base.

“Cornyn and everyone else he’s working with, his consultants, that’s just how they think. They’re establishment types, Washington insiders, country club Republicans, and they think that people who look like them and act like them and have the same friends as them are good candidates,” Viguerie said. “Obviously Florida is not unique. It’s very typical of what’s happening in race after race. The Tea Party people are just furious at the establishment.” (A representative for the NRSC did not return a request for comment.)

Viguerie has a point. A large number of Senate primaries have seen well-funded and heavily endorsed Republican candidates faltering. In Kentucky, Rand Paul—son of Ron Paul—is putting up competitive fundraising numbers and outpolling a seasoned candidate backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, State Treasurer Trey Grayson. In Utah, incumbent Senator Bob Bennett, despite NRSC backing, is close to losing his party’s nomination for working too closely with Democrats. In California, the self-financed computer executive Carly Fiorina, another McConnell pick, has floundered in the polls and drew widespread mockery for ads portraying an opponent as a demonic sheep. A similar dynamic played out in a 2009 special election for New York’s 23rd District, in which a candidate backed by the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Campaign Committee, Dede Scozzafava, dropped out and endorsed Bill Owen, the Democrat who ultimately won, after a national grassroots campaign rallied behind third-party conservative Doug Hoffman.

Politicians associated with the Tea Party, such as Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, have made early endorsements of insurgent candidates a chief source of credibility with Tea Partiers. One candidate in the California Senate race who’s received backing from DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund, Chuck DeVore, slammed Washington Republicans for backing Crist.

“I think it speaks to the danger of thinking that the judgment of a small number of people on Capitol Hill can effectively predict the outcome of a contested primary in a state 1,000 miles away,” DeVore told The Daily Beast.

Les Phillip, a Navy veteran running in a Republican primary against party-switcher Representative Parker Griffith (R-AL), voiced similar criticisms of the national GOP establishment. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) has endorsed Griffith, but many conservatives have criticized the party for welcoming him into the fold given his previous stint as a Democrat.

“From where I am, I see a lot of unprincipled individuals, which creates a disconnect with the actual voter base,” Phillip told The Daily Beast. His campaign has drawn support from former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and a number of Tea Party groups.

Some conservatives are more forgiving, however. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a backer of Marco Rubio’s campaign, said that despite his opposition to Crist, he didn’t harbor any ill will toward the NRSC. Norquist noted that the political climate at the time Crist was recruited in 2009 was more challenging for Republicans, with strategists predicting Democratic gains in the Senate; at that point, recruiting a battle-tested, moderate candidate with a large war chest made a certain sense.

“I don’t think that was a screw-up on the part of the NRSC. I think the world changed,” he said. “What would have been a mistake is if they sat there and insisted everyone support Crist, but they didn’t do that and they didn’t bad-mouth Rubio.”

Benjamin Sarlin is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.