TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Republicans are turning on Gov. Charlie Crist now that he plans to run for Senate as an independent, with one top official saying he is irreparably damaging his political career and the party is poised to back his opponent.
Crist, who trails tea party favorite Marco Rubio badly in polls, was expected to announce at a news conference Thursday evening that he will drop out of the Aug. 24 GOP primary to run on his own. That sets up an unusual three-way race with Rubio and likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Thursday that Crist's future political aspirations would be "irreparably damaged" by an independent run. The committee plans to reverse itself Thursday and back Rubio for the general election.
At a breakfast with reporters, Cornyn said his preference would be for Crist to stay in the Republican primary or forgo a Senate campaign until 2012. He called it a mistake for Crist to leave the GOP and expressed confidence that the party would hold the Florida seat.
"Once we get by this drama today, it'll be a general election campaign," Cornyn said, predicting: "People will begin focusing on Kendrick Meek." Cornyn said he expects GOP donors to ask to have their contributions refunded and added: "I will request the money that I've donated to his campaign from my leadership PAC back."
Cornyn gave Crist $10,000 when he recruited the governor to run for the Senate in 2009. Crist, who has already raised $7 million, about twice as much as Rubio, does not have to give back any contributions even if donors asked for them.
Just a year ago, it seemed Crist was the man to beat for the GOP nomination to run for the Senate seat Republican Mel Martinez was leaving early. But he has seen his poll numbers nose-dive as conservatives switched their support to Rubio, many driven away in part by Crist's support for President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus package.
Three confidants said Wednesday that Crist has told them he plans to run as an independent, though he told The Associated Press he had not notified anyone about his intentions.
Running as an independent may be the only way he can stay in the race, but that decision comes with some peril. He will lose his fundraising base, and likely most of his staff, who won't want to risk their own political careers with other Republican politicians by staying with him.
Scott Paine, professor of communication, government and world affairs at the University of Tampa, said an independent run could position Crist well with the large, moderate voting block in Florida. "You have Rubio to his right and Meek to his left and most Floridians in the middle, which is where Crist appears to be most of the time anyway," Paine said. "What we've seen of Charlie Crist, especially in the last six months, suggests that he really wasn't ever that hardcore conservative Republican and that's the Charlie people know."
Crist, elected governor in 2006, has spent the past several years working closely with Democrats and embracing other causes not popular among conservatives. Just two weeks ago, he alienated many powerful Republican and business interests by vetoing a measure that would have made it easier to fire teachers and linked their pay to student test scores. At the same time, he scored points with the influential teachers union and other traditionally Democratic constituents who won't have a say in August's GOP primary.
Asked how he would explain running without a party when he had said he was going to run as a Republican, he said Wednesday: "I don't know, number one, that I'm not, and number two, if I were to, I would say what I said the other day: Things change."
The Florida Democratic Party, meanwhile, used Crist's pending defection to encourage members to give money to Meek. "Now that Crist has again shown himself to be the typical politician who only cares about himself - we need your help to elect Kendrick Meek to the Senate," an e-mail to supporters read.