For the past month or so, observers have been asking, almost obsessively, whether Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will leave the Republican Party and run for Senate, instead, as an independent.
He's trailing his Republican primary opponent, Marco Rubio, by over 20 percentage points in major polls, and his outlook as an independent appears better: most polls show Crist losing a close three-way race with Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek, though a Quinnipiac survey shows him winning.
There's another option for the governor, however, that's getting overlooked: Crist could drop out of the race altogether and challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012.
It could be a difficult maneuver to pull off, but here are some considerations.
Crist has spent $2.3 million on his race so far, but, if he dropped out, his campaign committee would likely retain somewhere around $7 million. According to paperwork submitted March 31 to the Federal Election Commission, his campaign had just over $7.6 million at the end of March. It's possible that donors would ask for their money back if he dropped out, but it's also possible he would avoid giving back any money donated by Republican politicians or committees, which he would almost certainly have to do if he ceased to be a Republican.
Nelson would be a formidable opponent. A former astronaut, Nelson is a staid figure in Florida politics: in 2012, he will be finishing up his 12th year in the Senate, having been reelected in 2006 with 60 percent of the vote.
And Nelson's poll numbers are better than Crist's
Nelson is +2 in his favorable/unfavorable differential, while Crist is -1, according to Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll from March. (Forty-two percent view Nelson favorably, vs. 40 percent who view him unfavorably; 44 percent view Crist favorably, vs. 45 percent who view him unfavorably.) Nelson's job approval is also better: his approve/disapprove differential is +13 according to Quinnipiac, while Crist's is +10 (43 percent approve of Nelson, vs. 30 percent who disapprove; 49 percent of Crist, while 39 percent disapprove. Granted, the two are doing different jobs.
Crist was extremely popular for most of 2009 (60 percent favorable ratings), but who now finds his numbers sinking amid the efficient and aggressive campaign Rubio has run against him. His popularity could improve without Rubio hammering him daily for backing President Obama's stimulus.
The political situation could be different in the 2012 presidential election year, but it's hard to predict. The Tea Party movement and the small-government enthusiasm that has propelled Rubio ahead of Crist in 2010 may die down over the next two years; or, who knows, it could intensify.
If Crist drops out, he'll most likely spend the next two years out of politics. Coming back from that -- to oust an incumbent senator -- would be difficult. And who knows what unforeseen obstacles Crist would face: his ally, George LeMieux, who currently holds the U.S. Senate seat Crist is running for -- because Crist appointed him to replace GOP Sen. Mel Martinez -- could decide to run. Or GOP heavyweight Jeb Bush (who is also out of politics) could jump in.
And the Tea Partiers, it seems, could find another candidate to run against Crist in the 2012 primary, duplicating his troubles from 2010.
Republican Party officials in Florida most likely will not support Crist if he leaves the party and runs as an independent. Dropping out entirely (perhaps having reached some agreement with party officials?) would give him the opportunity to retain the backing of that GOP infrastructure, should he run in 2012 instead.
Whether or not he'll do it, we'll just have to wait and see.