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Should Democrats Be Rooting for Charlie Crist?

Florida Governor Charlie Crist will reportedly announce tomorrow that he is running for the United States Senate. At first glance this move — which would have surprised until we began to hear credible chatter about it from Republican insiders earlier this month — would seem like a real recruiting coup for the GOP. In contrast to most governors, Crist retains strong approval ratings; he is well ahead, moreover, of prospective Democratic opponents in early horse race polling. Democrats may hold out hope that they can skewer Crist for leaving Florida’s problems behind him in Tallahassee (the DSCC is already running ads to this effect), or that he’ll be defeated by Marco Rubio, a conservative young Cuban who has top-notch advisers and will be competing against him in the Republican primary. But this is likely to be very much an uphill battle for them, particularly given the absence of a top-tier opponent like state CFO Alex Sink. Florida will drop significantly on next month’s senate race report card.

As Arlen Specter has proven, however, party distinctions are often relatively meaningless: when control of the chamber is not at stake, it’s votes, not chairs, that count. And when it comes to key votes in the Senate, it’s an open question as to which would the Democrats rather have:

— a virtually 100 percent chance of Crist, an extremely moderate Republican, in the Senate chamber, or,
— a roughly 50 percent chance of Rubio, a fairly conservative Republican, and a 50 percent chance of Kendrick Meek, a not-particularly-progressive South Florida congressman who is the leading contender to represent the Democrats next November.

Let’s consider Crist’s stances on the issues:

The Stimulus. Crist was in favor was in favor of Obama’s economic stimulus package, and in fact campaiged with the President for its passage.

Cap-and-Trade. Crist supports cap-and-trade and signed a bill to create a statewide cap-and-trade system in Florida. This isn’t necessarily that radical a stance for a Florida politician, a state which has relatively few jobs in carbon-intensive industries and conversely might suffer disproportionately from rising sea levels and stronger Atlantic hurricanes (Mel Martinez, Florida’s outgoing Senator, was one of seven Republicans to vote in favor of cloture on last year’s climate change bill). Crist also somewhat notoriously reversed his former opposition to offshore drilling during John McCain’s 2008 election campaign. Nevertheless, he is likely to be a reasonably reliable Democratic vote on environmental issues.

National Health Insurance. Unclear. Last May, Crist signed a bill to provide for low-cost, no-frills health insurance for the roughly 20 percent of Floridians who are uninsured. The bill does not contain an individual mandate, but does prohibit insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of age or pre-existing conditions. The smart money is that Crist would be a gettable vote on health care but would balk at a public option.

Taxes. Crist has generally positioned himself as a fiscal conservative and it seems highly unlikely that Democrats would have his vote on an effort to roll back the Bush tax cuts or to make the tax code more progressive. Furthermore, Florida has no income tax, and Crist had previously suggested replacing the federal income tax with a flat tax or national sales tax. He is, however, currently considering a bill to raise tobacco taxes and certain other fees.

Abortion. Proving that the resemblance to fellow Ken Doll Mitt Romney is more than superficial, Crist has, at different points in his career, described himself as both “pro-choice” and (more recently) “pro-life”. Crist has made four appointments to the Florida Supreme Court: two conservatives and two moderates.

Gay Rights. Crist supports civil unions but not gay marriage, and was a somewhat lukewarm supporter of Florida’s Amendment 2, which passed in November and amended Florida’s constitution to ban gay marriage. Crist has also stated that he opposes any change to Florida’s longstanding ban on gay adoptions.

Immigration. Crist has been somewhat coy about his stance on immigration issues, but has generally been sympathetic toward immigration reform proposals including an amnesty provision for illegals.

Labor. Florida is a right-to-work state with low unionization rates, something which Crist has been loathe to change, although labor claims some moderate successes in strengthening layoff and workplace safety provisions for state employees. It seems unlikely that Crist would become the one Republican to defect on the “card check” provisions of EFCA, although his support for a compromise bill might be plausible.

Other Issues. On other “values” issues, Crist has generally taken an orthodox Republican stance. Although having adopted a somewhat casual tone about his own past usage of marijuana, Crist signed a bill last June to toughen Florida’s laws on marijuana growers and has stated his opposition to legalization provisions. He has received high ratings from the NRA and signed a bill to strengthen Flordia’s concealed-carry provisions. Crist is pro-death penalty and has overseen three executions. He has been a somewhat vocal supporter of education vouchers. On the other hand, Crist pushed to restore voting rights for some 750,000 non-violent ex-felons, a move which might have harmed John McCain in November.

All in all, this would appear to be an authentically moderate set of positions, one that very much resembles those of Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins. Not coincidentally, Crist’s approval ratings show no partisan split whatsoever; in the latest Quinnipiac polling, Crist received favorable ratings from 67 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Democrats, and 65 percent of independents. Crist, moreover, is not exactly a loyal GOP soldier, having essentially abandoned the McCain campaign in October and irking conservatives again in February by campaigning for the President’s stimulus package.

The particular answer to our question probably depends on the particular issues that the Senate would be taking up during Crist’s tenure, especially during the 112th Congress that will convene in January, 2011. Reading the divining rods, my guess is that the key policy debates during this interval will involve environmental policy (since cap-and-trade may lack the momentum to pass in a down economy), the tax code (since there will be increasing pressure on the Administration to pare down the deficit), and perhaps immigration reform (where Democrats may dare Republicans to further alienate Hispanic voters in advance of the 2012 elections). Democrats are likely to have Crist’s support on two of these three issues; that might be a bit better for them than flipping a coin between zero and three.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.