Monday, November 09, 2009

After Hoffman, Rubio Is Likely Conservatives’ Next Challenge

By Stuart Rothenberg

The defeat of Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd district isn’t likely to change conservatives’ plans to turn their attention quickly to Florida’s GOP Senate primary.

The Club for Growth’s endorsement of former state Speaker Marco Rubio (R) now seems inevitable, since he has positioned himself as the conservative insurgent against Gov. Charlie Crist (R), whom Rubio defines as an ally of President Barack Obama and an unreliable soldier in the struggle against liberalism.

Earlier this year, I wrote in this space (“Florida Senate Race: Just What Is Marco Rubio Up To?” June 22) that I was “agnostic” about whether Rubio could beat Crist for the GOP nomination. Too many questions still needed to be answered.

Now, however, it is clear that Rubio, bankrolled by the Club for Growth and conservatives across the nation, will offer a serious threat to Crist. Even some of the governor’s supporters expect a nail-biter. But while Rubio has the potential to beat Crist, don’t bury the governor just yet. This is going to get very interesting.

Crist’s initial advantage over Rubio — 53 percent to 18 percent in a mid-May survey by Mason-Dixon — reflected Rubio’s lack of name identification and the public’s lack of attention to the 2010 contest.

And while Rubio has moved strongly in the polls, reaching 35 percent in the Republican primary ballot test in Quinnipiac’s latest survey, Crist’s slide in the primary matchup hasn’t been all that dramatic, probably about 4 or 5 points. Still, he is now sitting right around the 50 percent mark in the Quinnipiac and St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald surveys, a dangerous place to be for a universally known governor in tough economic times.

More than a few opinion leaders in Florida see the governor as someone who avoids making tough decisions but is great at taking credit for the accomplishments of others.

Rubio’s big problem continues to be statewide visibility. Quinnipiac’s most recent survey found 55 percent of Republicans said they hadn’t heard enough about him to have a favorable or an unfavorable opinion, while only 5 percent said they hadn’t heard enough of Crist to have an opinion of him.

And for all his problems, Crist’s name ID among Republicans is 63 percent favorable/30 percent unfavorable. That’s certainly a high negative for an incumbent governor, but, as it stands now, it isn’t enough for Rubio to defeat Crist for the Senate nomination.

Crist has decent numbers among Democrats (47 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable) and good numbers among independents (65 percent favorable/24 percent unfavorable) in the Quinnipiac survey, but since Florida holds a closed primary, those voters can’t participate unless they re-register as Republicans. Look for Crist to try to do that much as Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) did five years ago when he was seeking renomination as a Republican.

Rubio and the Club for Growth will need to pummel Crist from now until the Aug. 24 primary, and they will certainly do so — on Crist’s support for Obama’s stimulus package and cap-and-trade legislation, among other things.

But Crist is only now gearing up for a fight, and he’ll have plenty of ammunition, both defensive and offensive. Unlike Specter and state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) in New York’s 23rd district special election, Crist is culturally conservative (“pro-life” and “pro-gun”), positions he’ll surely use to rebut Rubio’s characterizations of him. And as a former state attorney general, Crist’s anti-crime record is long.

Moreover, the governor will go after Rubio on everything from his redecorating of the Speaker’s office to his voting record in the Legislature.

Local observers say Crist is guaranteed to make a major issue of Rubio’s support for a steep hike in the state’s sales tax when he was state Speaker. Rubio’s supporters will cry foul, complaining that the then-Speaker proposed the sales tax increase in exchange for the elimination of the state’s property tax on primary residences, and, of course, they’ll be right.

But Crist doesn’t have to portray Rubio’s record that way. He can and will focus only on the tax hike part of Rubio’s proposal, which would have been a boon to homeowners but not to renters. The debate should drive the folks at the Club for Growth crazy.

“By the time Crist gets done with him, ‘Marco Rubio’ and ‘sales tax’ will be tied together,” chuckled one journalist about the governor’s likely strategy.

Crist’s financial advantage also can’t be underestimated in a state where a major statewide TV buy of 1,000 gross ratings points costs about $1.5 million.

By its own admission, the Club for Growth spent $645,000 in this week’s New York special election, and it bundled another $376,000 from its members, for a total investment of about $1 million. That’s a huge amount in a single House race, but it isn’t such a dramatic number in a Florida Senate race, where Crist is likely to spend many millions.

Moreover, the club has other opportunities, in Utah and Pennsylvania, for example, and former Club for Growth President Pat Toomey (R) will expect a major effort by his former organization on his behalf in the Senate race in Pennsylvania. Even the anti-tax organization’s resources are not unlimited, so it’s not clear how much money the group can and will commit to Florida.

Finally, Florida political observers say it’s a huge error to underestimate Crist. In something of a back-handed compliment, one observer put it this way: “Charlie doesn’t care about anything but Charlie Crist. That means he’ll do anything to win. He always wins, even when it looks like he shouldn’t.”

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 5, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.