Gizzi on Politics April 20

Will Florida Conservatives Rally to Rubio?

To hear insiders from Tallahassee to Washington tell it, Florida GOP Gov. Charlie Crist will soon opt to run for the seat of fellow Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who is retiring next year. Polls show the 53-year-old Crist a runaway winner over any Democrat and, state and national political observers predict, the Floridian will fast emerge as a national leader of more moderate Republicans once in the Senate.  

Veteran Republican political consultant Roger Stone, who has not been active in the conservative movement for years and is now a Miami resident, recently said that the governor’s position to accept the full stimulus package passed by Congress would prove “wildly popular” with the average voter in spite of opposition from the GOP’s conservative base.  

Stone told reporters, “You still have the same division in our party between the base who are extreme and the moderates who are interested in getting things done. The extremists love purity. And they love losing elections.”  

Perhaps true in rare cases, but more than a few conservatives in the Florida Republican Party do not think it would be “extreme” at all if, instead of Crist, they nominated Marco Rubio, who just completed in January a stint as the first-ever Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. Although the 37-year-old Miami attorney did not declare his candidacy during a visit to my office last week, Rubio has set up an exploratory committee and website for a Senate bid in 2010. Supporters privately tell me he will “announce something” in a few weeks, regardless of what Crist decides to do.  

“I’m not basing a decision on running upon who is or isn’t running,” Rubio insisted. “I’m basing it on the fact I grew up in a community of exiles who lost their country. And I’ll be damned if I lose mine!”  

Rubio’s decision to at least explore a Senate race, he explained to me, is based on his belief that “the fundamental issue of freedom is at stake. We are reaching a point where the government is picking winners and losers in the business community and that will mean big businesses survive and small businesses that create most of the jobs and are the backbone of society will not. If people want that kind of government, then I suggest that they move to France or Venezuela or Vermont.”  

Although he repeatedly insisted his decision on a Senate race has nothing to do with what Crist does, it was obvious that he was referring to his differences with the governor on the $787 billion Obama stimulus package.  But this is not the first time the two Republicans have clashed. Two years ago, as newly minted Gov. Crist embraced radical environmentalism with vigor and issued executive orders to cut emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks to pre-1990 levels, then-Speaker Rubio blasted this position as “European-style big-government mandates.” He also warned that Floridians could expect higher utility bills if the state goes along with Crist’s call to cut carbon emissions on utilities. (The legislature eventually did not go along and Crist’s plan died.)  

Crist continues to be one of the leading national GOP figures identified with environmentalism and has vowed to “place our state at the forefront of a growing worldwide movement to reduce greenhouse gases.” “Global climate change is one of the most important issues we will face in this century,” insists Crist.  

Like former Republican Gov. (1988-2006) Jeb Bush (“a close friend and mentor”), Rubio is unafraid to proclaim his strong pro-life views, that Roe v. Wade should be overturned and that states should decide any exceptions to a ban on abortion (although the Miami man is opposed to abortion under all circumstances).  

So far, two Democrats — State Sen. Dan Gelber and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 7%) — are vying for their party’s Senate nomination. Another Republican, Rep. Vern Buchanan (lifetime ACU rating: 72%), has said he will run for the Senate but only if Crist doesn’t.  

Discussing making the race, Rubio told me, “Look, I’ve got a very nice life. Young children, a law practice run out of my home office, and my wife helping me run it, and season tickets to the [Miami] Dolphins. I don’t need to run for anything. But, as I said before, the fundamental issue of freedom is at stake here.”

The Frederick Saga: Act Two

Two weeks after Virginia’s Republican State Committee voted 54 to 18 to unseat State Party Chairman Jeff Frederick, the young (33) conservative firebrand hinted not very subtly that he would was not out and would try to reclaim the party helm at the Republican State Convention May 30-31.

“It’s not official, but I’m leaning very strongly in that direction,” Fredericks told me from his Dumfries office two days after Easter. “Although to a degree this is about moderates fighting conservatives, it is also substantially about those who favor a top-down approach to party organization versus those who believe that grass-roots should control the party. That top-down approach is exactly what has lost us election after election, and the very same people at the helm of our party during those losses now — with me out of the way — are in charge. I don’t believe in their ‘Richmond-knows-best’ way of doing things and those at the top didn’t like that and they went after me from the moment I became chairman.”

For weeks, Frederick (who also serves as a member of the state House of Delegates) had been under fire for Republican losses in the Old Dominion last fall as well as having his company provide some services to the party. As he explained, “I don’t see how they say I did anything illegal or helpful to me, since my company lost money last year.” All of the state’s U.S. House members, the speaker of the state house, and ’09 gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell all called for Frederick’s ouster. All of them opposed his bid for chairman at the state convention in ’08.

Under party rules, an interim chairman will be selected by the state committee May 2. Signs are strong that the new leader will be Louisa County GOP Chairman Pat Mullens, generally a well-liked figure who has been aligned with party conservatives in the past. However, the decision on the chairmanship is only good until the full state convention, in which delegates historically have been more conservative than state committee members. It is there that all bets are off.

Last year, with most elected Republicans arrayed against him, Frederick pulled off a stunning upset by rolling up 70% of the convention vote to unseat then-State Chairman John Hager. Actually, Frederick noted, “It was 100% since John withdrew before the balloting was over and graciously made my election unanimous.”

“Winning elections is about addition, not substraction,” Frederick added, noting how he won re-election in his Northern Virginia legislative district (the most Democratic district in the state held by a Republican) with 59% of the vote only a year before Barack Obama carried it with 64% of the vote. “That’s what I’m about. Yet our current party leaders are turning away good people every day by high-handed tactics such as those I’m experiencing. My opponents may have won the battle at the state committee meeting, but in the process, they’re losing the grass-roots and could be losing the war.”

Chocola After Toomey

To no one’s surprise, former Rep. (1998-2004) Pat Toomey (R.-Pa.) resigned as president of the Club for Growth last week and then announced he will challenge Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) for renomination next year (See “Politics,” April 6 for background).

Succeeding him at the helm of the aggressively pro-free market group is another conservative — former House member, Chris Chocola. A Hillsdale College graduate and head of a family agricultural parts business, Chocola served in the House from Indiana’s 2nd District (Terre Haute) from 2002-06 and compiled a strong conservative record (lifetime ACU rating: 95%). He has also served on the club’s National Leadership Council.