The next Republican civil war



How quickly the calendar turns. Scant weeks ago, it appeared that Pennsylvania would be hosting the ultimate Republican steel-cage death match between its dominant conservative wing and its recessive moderate wing. But the anticipated Senate primary duel between conservative Pat Toomey and moderate Arlen Specter was short-circuited by Specter's abdication. Conservatives were thus deprived of the opportunity to demonstrate their ideological purity by knocking off Specter and nominating a guy who is virtually unelectable statewide in 2010.

But conservatives can now take heart, simply by shifting their focus 1000 miles to the south. In the swing-state of Florida, they will have the opportunity to knock off a popular, electable Republican in a Senate GOP primary, and instead nominate an ideological conservative who would give the Democrats a chance to pick up yet another Senate seat. This scenario is not exactly the winning formula for a party comeback, but apparently it would allow the conservatives to marinate in their purity as the party shrinks further.

Charlie Crist, the moderate Republican governor with the deep tan and the 71 percent statewide approval rating, announced yesterday that he will run next year for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Mel Martinez (who was deemed unacceptable by the conservative base because of his support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform). Crist has two assets that Republicans dearly need these days: he attracts Democratic and independent support (at a time when the Grand Old Party is increasingly saddled with its image as the Cheney Limbaugh Party), and he is a proven fundraiser who can raise the big bucks necessary to blanket Florida's multiple media markets (thus freeing up the national Republicans to focus their money efforts on Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri - states where the GOP is at serious risk of losing more Senate seats in 2010).

The hitch, naturally, is that Crist is deemed by conservative activists to be unacceptably impure, and thus a threat to wind up in the Senate and become the GOP's new Specteresque irritant...which is why they're already lining up behind the upstart conservative challenger, the guy who will play the Toomey role in Florida. That would be Marco Rubio, the former state House Speaker, a young, eloquent Cuban-American who spent yesterday in full campaign mode - twittering that Crist is a faux Republican, telling Fox News that Crist is a faux Republican, and releasing an ad that shows Crist cozying up to Barack Obama (the ultimate sin).

Right now, it's hard to imagine that Rubio can defeat Crist. The governor has universal name ID (whereas Rubio is not even in public office anymore), and the early polls show Crist winning the primary in a landslide. But that contest is 15 months away, plenty of time for Rubio to work the conservative base. Democratic connoisseurs of Republican infighting will have ample opportunity to sit back with popcorn and enjoy.

Indeed, Crist has already failed the right's key litmus test; a few months ago, he not only decided to take all the federal stimulus money that had been earmarked for Florida, he actually shared a platform with the president and told NBC that "in the Florida way, we work together in a bipartisan fashion." Such behavior - agreeing to take billions of dollars to help the beleaguered citizens of his state - has naturally garnered kudos from a landslide majority of Floridians, but Crist's move could be a deal-breaker for the conservative voters who will dominate the Florida GOP primary...a contest that will be closed to Democrats and independents.

Actually, Crist's stimulus stance is merely the latest perceived miscue. Even though Crist has won some conservative praise for his fiscal policies, there is already a long list of heresies:

Crist appointed a black Democrat with a strong civil rights record to the state Supreme Court; he thinks that global warming is real, he wants a big reduction in auto emissions, he sponsored an environmental conference keynoted by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and he once discussed green issues with Sheryl Crow; he doesn't believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned; he refuses to push for a state constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage ("I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy"); he supports voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences ("I believe in forgiveness and atonement"); he wants to raise more state revenue by expanding legal gambling; he has taken on the insurance companies by slapping a lid on homeowners' insurance premiums.

And that doesn't include the innuendo about Crist's private life. Rubio won't need to touch it; his Christian conservative allies will take care of it. They can even reference Outrage, a new movie documentary about closeted gay politicians, which names Crist as one such denizen. That's not the ideal profile for a candidate in a Republican primary. Crist insists he is straight, but he is widely disbelieved. Conservative journals have long used code while writing about Crist; early last year, The National Review, in an attack piece on Crist, mentioned that, around the time he was graduating law school, "he married his college girlfriend. They divorced half a year later, and he's been single ever since."

Actually, Crist recently got married again, but a lot of conservatives think it's only for show. By contrast, Rubio is being touted as a fertile heterosexual; in the words of The Weekly Standard magazine, which has an adoring profile in its latest issue, Rubio "married his longtime girlfriend Jeannette, once a Miami Dolphins cheerleader and now the mother of their four young children."

Top that one, Charlie.
Given Rubio's personal profile, and his core conservative convictions on everything from immigration to the environment to abortion, his followers are incensed that the Washington Republican establishment has so speedily embraced Crist. Fifteen minutes after Crist announced his candidacy yesterday, the GOP's Senate campaign arm - the National Republican Senatorial Committee, led by Texas Senator John Cornyn - rushed to embrace Crist and pledge its support in the 2010 GOP primary. It's unusual (or it used to be) for the national party to take sides in a primary, but Cornyn has the wild and crazy idea that maybe the Republicans should staunch their intramural bloodletting and support candidates who can actually win in politically diverse swing states.

Cornyn got nowhere with that one. A twittering activist at the conservative American Spectator promptly declared yesterday that it's time to "fire Cornyn," a blogger at the popular wrote that Cornyn's rejection of Rubio was akin to "a stick in the eye," and another blogger at the website urged all conservatives to financially boycott Cornyn's campaign committee. Meanwhile, online yesterday, talk-show host Glenn Beck summed up his feelings about Crist thusly:


Let the games begin.