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As recently as 2008, it seemed better to be Charlie Crist than to be just about any other politician in the country. The moderate Republican governor of the nation’s biggest swing state, Crist was vastly popular, with approval ratings in the upper 60s, and widely considered a leading candidate for the GOP vice-presidential slot. But comedowns in politics can be swift. Early this spring, Crist—no longer a governor, a vice-presidential hopeful, or even a Republican—sat before a camera in a Tampa office park to apologize for a year-old campaign misdemeanor: in an online ad during his unsuccessful 2010 Senate race, Crist had used a brief clip from the Talking Heads song “Road to Nowhere” without asking permission, and he’d been sued for copyright infringement by the band’s front man, David Byrne. Now, to satisfy the terms of the settlement, he had to record a public apology.
His head tilted down, presumably toward a script, Crist said, “The use of David Byrne’s song and his voice in my campaign advertisement without his permission was wrong and should not have occurred.” The former governor continued, penitently, for a minute and a half, affirming the copyright claims of artists and swearing that, “should there be any further election campaigns” for him, he would be sure to license any music legally. The background of the video—the sort of blue-and-gray swirl that normally frames middle-school yearbook shots—didn’t do Crist any favors, and neither did his humbled delivery. On the left, Salon noted Crist’s “sad, dead eyes.” On the right, Hot Air’s Allahpundit declared the apology “excruciating to behold.”
The Crist story contains many lessons, but one is that the price of leaving your political party can be a radical form of political isolation. “It’s an incredibly sad story—it’s Shakespearean,” Stuart Stevens, the prominent Republican media consultant who worked on every one of Crist’s four statewide campaigns, told me. After his failed Senate run, the former governor should have had his pick of jobs, whether moving to Washington for a cushy lobbying gig or a term at the RNC, or setting up shop at a white-shoe Florida law firm from which he could mount his next electoral bid.
Instead, barely half a year after his Senate defeat, Crist is working as a partner for Morgan & Morgan, a personal-injury law firm headquartered in Orlando. The firm is famous throughout Florida for its heavy rotation of TV ads soliciting clients: in an especially hokey one, the two named partners, John Morgan and his wife, Ultima, appear with their dogs. In early May, a new spot hit the airwaves, featuring the ex-governor himself. “I’m Charlie Crist,” he declares. “If you need help sorting out your legal issues as the result of an accident or insurance dispute, visit me at Charlie@ForThePeople.com.”
Few within the Crist camp saw any of this coming. Early in his Senate race, Crist held a comfortable lead in the Republican primary over challenger Marco Rubio, a young Cuban American state representative.* Rubio was, in the eyes of Crist’s advisers and friends, a bit of a lightweight, a guy who’d married a Miami Dolphins cheerleader and endorsed Mike Huckabee for president—not quite ready for prime time. But throughout late 2009 and early 2010, as the Tea Party built momentum nationwide, Rubio did the same in the Sunshine State. Crist’s reputation for moderation and bipartisanship was now a black mark, and he was hounded by videos of an appearance with President Obama in which he’d stumped for the stimulus. By May, with the primary looming, his internal polls showed him down 20 points.
Crist saw a way out: he would abandon the Republican Party, from which he was feeling increasingly alienated, and run as an independent. “I begged him not to do it,” Stevens told me. “I just said, ‘Look, you’ve got to understand, the national Republicans will attack you, the national Democrats will attack you, you’re going to be out there in your little [sailboat], these two dreadnoughts will pull up—it will end fast.’” The plea failed and, the next morning, Crist announced he was leaving the GOP. Stevens and other senior advisers—including the pollster Glen Bolger and the lawyer Ben Ginsburg—resigned immediately. For a while, Crist’s sister ran the campaign; the governor ultimately lost to Rubio by 19 points.
On the phone, Crist is upbeat, charming, and self-deprecating—all the qualities that once made him an appealing politician. He says that his current work at Morgan & Morgan suits him. “I was a former attorney general and we focused a lot on consumer rights, so it was a very natural fit for me,” Crist told me. “Their whole slogan is ‘For the people.’ What more natural place for a public servant to go than a firm that fights for the little guy?”
That language contains a hint that Crist may be imagining a political rebirth: as a plaintiff’s lawyer, he may not have become a perfect Democrat, but he has become a Republican’s idea of the perfect Democrat. “I was always proud previously to be a member of the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, and Teddy Roosevelt—the party that protected our national parks,” Crist said. “There seems to be much less of that these days.”
There is, though, bountiful evidence of the costs of his political transformation. “Politics,” Stevens explained regretfully, “is shirts and skins.” And for now, Charlie Crist is a man without a team.