Crist concedes Senate race in St. Pete

11/03/10 Kate Bradshaw
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It wasn’t too long after polls closed that Florida’s US Senate contest went to Marco Rubio. As the Senator-elect’s victory party roared through the evening, the party for another candidate in that race – Florida governor Charlie Crist – took on a calmer tone. The governor gave a short and sweet concession speech to dozens of supporters at a posh ballroom in the Renaissance Vinoy in Crist’s hometown of St. Petersburg.

It’s the same venue at which Crist held his victory party four years ago when he won the race for governor, but there’s one striking difference. The enormous ballroom where Crist delivered an exuberant acceptance speech is cut in half by ceiling-high room dividers. Nobody is too surprised when the results of the senate race are made official, though supporters like Don Andrews of Seminole are holding out hope until the last minute.

"The underdog always wins, that's why I'm here for Charlie."

Around 8:45, Charlie Crist ascends the stage, flanked by family, supporters, and campaign staff.

"I want to let you know, I called Senator-elect Rubio and I wished him well. God bless him and his family. I know that he will serve our state well and I congratulate him on his great victory tonight, we all should too. Congratulations, Senator."

His concession speech barely exceeds two minutes, and afterward he leaves the room without talking to the press. He’s heavy on gratitude, but the governor admits it’s been a funky year.

"This is the greatest state in the country. You're the greatest people in the world and you'll always have my heart. And I love you with every fiber in me and it's a tough night but there's a bright future ahead."

Another difference between this party and that of 2006, when Crist was a staunch Republican, is that the crowd seems to be more diverse. While many in attendance are Republicans, others identify themselves as independents and even Democrats. Independent Irene Pridgen, a volunteer with the campaign, is another supporter who still believes Crist can win even as the tallies are pouring in for Rubio. She says her support for Crist has little to do with the politics of the two main parties.

"He's the only candidate I feel that has a heart in this race. He's not for the special interests. He's for everybody. It doesn't matter; race, creed, or color. He's just for the little man. He cares about poverty, he cares about all of the issues that I care about."

Instead of drawing a majority of votes, Crist drew cynicism from many on the left and the right after he dropped his Republican Party ties in late April. Both of his mainstream opponents painted him as an opportunist. But State Representative Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from St. Petersburg who supports Crist, says the people who are here supporting Crist are here out of disgust for the two-party system.

"You're seeing people that wanted to send an independent thinker who would do right by the people, not necessarily by party bosses."

Rouson says that’s why he’s here, and not at a gathering for Democratic US Senate hopeful Kendrick Meek, who ended the night with 20 percent of the vote.

"I've not liked the extremes of either party. And, frankly, I've tended towards those individuals that I've built relationships with and come to respect as human beings. Individuals who care more about people than necessarily party politics."

Like his two major opponents, Crist ran a campaign that was based largely on attack ads. But he also crossed the state a number of times, shaking hands with everyone he could. Some say this earned him the reputation of the quintessential nice guy. State Senator Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey, has been a long-time Crist supporter. He says constantly engaging every Floridian Crist could was effective, but without the blessing of one of the monolithic political parties that dominate the public sphere, a nice-guy persona won’t cut it.

"He cares about the little guy and gal and I think he was able to deliver that message. Unfortuanately, though, when you're not a party candidate with the establishment of the Republican party or the establishment of the Democratic behind you and the millions of dollars that flow out of Washington, it's a tough battle."

Fasano adds that the fact that Crist got the press he did as a non-party candidate says a couple of things about Florida politics.

"You can run an independent candidate, like a Charlie Crist, and be effective. It also tells you that Florida may not be ready for someone that's not a Republican or a Democrat."

Supporter Jason Medina says there’s another factor at play in what some are calling Crist’s political downfall – timing.

"Here's a man who at one point was rumored to be the Vice President in the last Presidential election. When the economy was good, when ratings were high. But the second that ratings dropped, they left him. And he had a choice he either had to go by the script and basically change his platform, because he had a lot of leeway when the economy was good. And he decided to go independent."

But Representative Darryl Rouson says he doesn’t think it’s over for Crist quite yet.

"Well, God ain't through with Charlie yet. And I think the best thing is for him to take a little time. He's been in political office and on the hotseat for a long time. And he ought to relax a minute, listen to spirit. But I don't think he's through with public service. The calling was placed in him early in life which is why he's run and held public office for so long."

Crist’s first and only term as Florida governor ends in January.

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rolling the dice

It's a shame that Crist and Meek cancelled each other out and allowed a Tea Party candidate like Rubio to fly in under the radar. Rubio was never challenged on his positions, he only ran to different ads that I saw, and they said nothing. I hope Meek and Crist both make it back into public office, and I'm proud that Democrats picked Meek for a statewide office. I think Crists problem was that after grooming himself for Vice President he tried to backtrack towards the Democrats. Maybe if he'd just had the courage of his convictions he would have gone Democrat earlier. Once he got into the fight with Tallahassee Republicans, he didn't have a real path with them. If he'd declared Democrat, maybe Mr. Meek would have decided to stay another for another term, or challenged Ms. Sink for the governor's race.