Charlie Crist is running out of time in his bid to be Florida's next senator. Trailing by double digits in the last four polls, this onetime darling of the GOP establishment is pinning his hopes on raiding the Democratic base in what is shaping up as one of the weirdest and most racially complex elections in Florida history.
Never was that more evident than at a campaign stop the other day, in which Crist went searching through the back rooms of an Amtrak train station in Miami for the lone African American at a United Transportation Union event.
"I really like your hat," the governor said after finally finding Larry Williams, a red-cap baggage handler. "Can we have our picture taken?"
Before Williams could say a word, the governor was posing alongside him. He handed Williams a "Crist for Senate" bumper sticker and reminded him, "I'm ninth on the ballot, OK, so you have to go down the list and then you'll lift me back up."
Williams said later he was leaning toward Crist, even though most folks might expect him to vote for the Democratic nominee, Kendrick Meek, who is African American.
"It ain't a color thing, anymore," Williams said. "It's who's the best candidate, that's all. It sounds like he's pretty good—for now."
But a color thing is exactly what this race is turning into. Crist has to do something that is nearly impossible—picking off what one of his advisers describes as "slivers of votes" from disparate groups.
“This is the strangest political environment that I have ever seen,” said Congressman Alcee Hastings, a Meek supporter.
He has to convince a majority of Democrats to abandon their own nominee by courting blacks while simultaneously exploiting the distrust of an African-American candidate with white voters. He has to move sharply to the left on issues while holding on to at least some Republicans. And he has to convince independents that his leaving the Republican Party was a principled position and not just a political Hail Mary.
Crist's two opponents only add to the ethnic oddity of the contest. The Republican is a Latino who is running on one of the more anti-Latino platforms in the country. And the Democrat is a black guy who is desperately trying to convince people that his own party hasn't abandoned him.
"This is the strangest political environment that I have ever seen," said Congressman Alcee Hastings, a Meek supporter. "It is anybody's ballgame."
Hoping for his own game-changing moment, Crist went deep into the heart of Florida's Democratic base on Sunday—a sprawling condo complex for senior citizens in Boca Raton known as Century Village.
On Sunday, hundreds of them packed into the main auditorium of Temple Beth Shalom for a free bagel, a schmeer, and a chance to see Crist.
Crist wasn't alone; he brought his wife, Carole. "She's a nice Jewish girl—I married up," Crist noted in the first 60 seconds of his speech. But most importantly he brought former Democratic congressman and liberal firebrand Robert Wexler, who announced he was endorsing Crist on Sunday.
Crist had shown political courage in defying the right wing of the Republican Party and "earned" the support of Democrats in this race, Wexler said. "Washington needs some bridge makers, some bridge builders. And Charlie will be that kind of senator," he said.
In a dozen interviews with seniors at Century Village, all of them said they were either voting for Crist or leaning that way, even though they were lifelong Democrats. When asked what it was about Meek they didn't like, none of them could articulate anything in particular he had done or said to lose their support. "I don't like him so I'm voting for Charlie Crist," one 80-year-old woman explained.
Hastings, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he believes race is a factor. He said the Jewish community in particular should be rising to Meek's side and not abandoning him for Crist.
Hastings said in a typical race, 20 percent of white Democrats will not vote for a black candidate. "We laugh about it, we call it the black tax," Hastings said.
But this is not a typical race, and this time around, the tax seems much higher. On Wednesday, Hastings organized a conference call with 80 black elected officials and candidates across the state of Florida. "What I said to them was, ‘Please don't buy into the illusion that Kendrick cannot win this race,’" Hastings recalled.
Hastings’ greatest frustration is directed at the national Democratic Party. He said the party has done almost nothing to help Meek. He suspects there are elements within the party that are secretly helping Crist because they believe he has a better chance of beating the Republican candidate, Marco Rubio.
"I am also suspicious of this Wexler endorsement," Hastings told The Daily Beast. "There had to be some kind of wink and blink from Obama. Remember that Wexler was one of Obama's early supporters in the United States Congress and I don't think he'd be going this far out unless there was a winking and nodding going on."
It is easy to forget that when Charlie Crist jumped into the Senate race he was the beloved establishment candidate—back before 'establishment' became a dirty word. It is also worth recalling that Marco Rubio was a punchline, a candidate with no chance of winning.
No one is laughing at Rubio today. He saw the power and the potential in the Tea Party movement and became its first star for the 2010 election cycle. All it took to cement Rubio's position was one little hug, a fleeting embrace of both Obama and the president's stimulus plan.
Crist tried to move to the right—opposing Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation to the Supreme Court but it was too little, too late. In early 2010, while still in the Republican Party, Crist spent millions on TV ads attacking Rubio. Nevertheless, Rubio's poll numbers kept going up and Crist's kept falling. "We poured $2 million into ads against Rubio and it didn't even make a dent in his numbers," said one former Crist aide.
Once he made the decision to run as an independent, Crist immediately began moving to the left. He also began placing phone calls to key Democrats around the state, including Alfredo Balsera. An early supporter of President Obama, Balsera was a member of Obama's national finance committee and remains one of the president's senior advisers on Latino outreach.
Crist was eager to meet with Balsera and so on a Sunday in early May, the governor and his security detail pulled up in a black SUV in front of Balsera's Coral Gables home. While Balsera's kids played in the pool, and the men with earpieces kept an eye around the barbecue, Balsera and Crist spoke inside the house for nearly two hours, The Daily Beast has learned. "We ended up splitting a bottle of Chardonnay and he ate an entire bowl of my wife's guacamole," Balsera recalled. "We talked about why he decided to leave the Republican Party and how segments of the party had become too extreme."
Balsera criticized Crist for speaking out against Sotomayor's nomination, but Crist, according to Balsera, said that is why he needed to leave the Republican Party—so he wouldn't have to take such strident positions in the future.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Crist said that by running as an independent it had a "liberating" effect on his views. "There is enormous pressure for a partisan nominee to toe the line," he said, adding that was certainly the case in his opposition to Sotomayor.
In the weeks that followed their white wine summit, Crist and Balsera continued to talk until finally Balsera signed on to the campaign and held a fundraiser for Crist. "Most of the people who came were Democrats," said Balsera, noting the event raised $40,000.
Before hosting the fundraiser, however, Balsera said he called the White House to "inform them" that he was going to be raising money for Crist. He said he didn't ask for their permission, but he also admitted that if anyone in the administration had raised objections to it he would have backed away.
Balsera is not alone. The Crist campaign is chock full of Democrats—including its pollster, its South Florida political director, and its press secretary.
The company handling Crist's media, SKDKickerbocker, has deep Democratic ties. The D in SKD stands for Dunn, as in Anita Dunn, Obama's former communication's director. Dunn says she is not directly working on the Crist campaign; instead that job falls to SKD's Josh Isay, who used to work for New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. Isay’s résumé includes New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's last two mayoral campaigns, as well as Joe Lieberman's independent Senate campaign in Connecticut.
The Crist campaign notes there are still Republicans working for it—including his sister, campaign manager Margaret Crist Wood.
Nevertheless, the fact that so many Democrats are working for Crist creates the impression the party nationally is tacitly behind him because they see him as the best chance at beating Rubio. Even Vice President Joe Biden, during a visit to Miami Friday, felt the need to make a statement of support on Meek's behalf saying, "The support of the president and me is foursquare, 100 percent, unadulterated for the next United States senator from Florida, Kendrick Meek."
In the meantime, Rubio's strategy is a simple one—do nothing that would alienate his hard-core, right-wing base and pray that Hispanics will give him a pass on many of his positions (he backs Arizona’s immigration law, supports making English the official language, and opposes a pathway for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship). Rubio bashes Crist at every opportunity while leaving Meek untouched. Rubio would love to see Meek rise a little in the polls, believing it is the best safeguard against Crist. In a three-way race, 38 percent of the vote on Election Day will probably be enough to win.
For his part, Crist has one big thing going for him. He still has millions of dollars of cash on hand to blanket the state with commercials. Crist is hoping that if Meek's numbers (which have remained flat at 23 percent in the polls for almost a month) don't improve in the next two weeks, voters may begin to view this as a two-man race between Crist and Rubio. "I think it already is," Crist told The Daily Beast. "It's the will of the people."
There are no shortage of signs the Democrats have written off the Florida Senate race.
On September 10, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, flew to Miami for a fundraiser. The DSCC has not spent a single dime on behalf of Meek. But that didn’t stop Menendez from coming into the state to raise money.
When the DSCC sent out the initial invitation, neither Meek nor many of his big money donors were invited, The Daily Beast has learned. One source familiar with the event said the DSCC didn’t want to deal with Meek and his supporters complaining to Menendez that the committee wasn't spending any money on the Florida nominee.
Seventy-two hours before the event took place, Meek's campaign sent an email to the DSCC asking to be invited to the event—a humiliating position to be in, given that he’s running and the event was in his hometown.
Meek was eventually invited.
The Meek campaign downplayed the incident. Regarding the national party, Meek's campaign manager, Abe Dyk, told The Daily Beast: "There may have been a time when a few strays believed that Crist had a better chance of defeating Marco Rubio, but there is no question now that Democrats know we've got the momentum, Crist is toast, and Kendrick is the only hope of defeating Rubio."
Congressman Hastings was less diplomatic. He chastised Menendez and other Senate leaders for not committing DSCC resources to helping Meek. "They have bought into the illusion that Kendrick cannot win," Hastings said. "Well I got news for them, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Hastings warned that if the Democratic Party doesn't step up and help the African-American candidate in Florida, then Florida blacks may not be willing to help other candidates in the future, such as Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who will be up for reelection in two years.
"I find myself telling Bill Nelson, 'Look here friend, you are going to come here to the African-American community and I know doggone well that you cannot win without the African-American community in 2012, and guess what, if you and Barack Obama and Robert Menendez cannot deliver for us then why should we bother to think about delivering for you.’”
Jim DeFede, a longtime South Florida investigative reporter, works for CBS4 News in Miami.