An independent Sen. Crist could spark bidding war

McClatchy NewspapersApril 29, 2010 

If Gov. Charlie Crist actually wins his independent bid for the U.S. Senate, would his new allies be Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont? Is there an upside for Florida to have a senator in the tiny caucus of independents in the clubby U.S. Senate?

Maybe so, say some political observers. With Republicans expected to pick up a few Senate seats in November but not enough for a majority, the razor-thin balance of power could mean a friendly Republican reception for Crist, scheduled to announce his political plans Thursday.

"If the Republican Party had 65 votes they might say, 'Get the heck out of here,' but if they're at 40 something, he's going to dinner at [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell's house," said John Droney, a former Democratic state chairman in Connecticut and a Lieberman ally.

He and others predict Crist's vote might be so sought after he could land a seat on a committee of his choosing.

"If you're trying to put together a majority, you don't care what happened in Florida; you only care what happens on the floor of the Senate," Droney said.

Republican senators were reluctant to say how they would treat Crist should he triumph as an independent. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who chairs the GOP's Senate campaign and gave Crist an early endorsement, instead reiterated a warning that Crist should run as a Republican or "take a pass."

"I don't think his chances of success would be very good at all," Cornyn said of an independent bid. As for a Crist win, "it would be a question of whether an independent would caucus with us or not. All of it is speculation at this point."

Given the acrimony -- former Vice President Dick Cheney last week endorsed rival Marco Rubio and warned Crist that an independent bid would only benefit the Democrats -- some speculate an independent Crist might consider a flirtation with Democrats who would welcome a convert, especially one representing a key presidential battleground state.

"They could offer him not only decent committee assignments but real power," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

Cook Political Report senior editor Jennifer Duffy notes Crist would be "smart to leave open the question of who he would caucus with. It gives him leverage."

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report which handicaps races, says Crist can't win as an independent. But if he did? "He'd be on every magazine cover, every Sunday show, Dancing With the Stars."

And he'd need that new-found star power. Rothenberg said there would be such a reservoir of political poison from a contentious election that Crist would likely have trouble finding a comfortable fit in the Senate. Lieberman, he noted, isn't popular with Democrats, with whom he caucuses.

"[Crist] could find himself in a position where there would be a bidding war over him, but once he cast his lot there's so much bitterness I don't know that they would embrace him," Rothenberg said. "No one would necessarily trust him. I don't think it would be bonanza time for Florida."

The Senate's two independents -- Lieberman and Sanders -- caucus with Senate Democrats, attending policy lunches and strategy sessions. Lieberman, who lost the Democratic Party primary election in 2006 over his support for the war in Iraq but won reelection as a third party candidate, doesn't always vote the party line.

Lieberman's office declined a request for an interview. Sanders, a Socialist elected as an independent in 2006, said his lack of party affiliation has never been an issue.

"The Democratic leadership has been very kind to me. I'm treated as I suspect anyone else is in terms of seniority," Sanders said.

Lieberman, who like Crist found himself at odds with his own party, is "not part of the team, but he's still working within the system very effectively," said Gary Rose, a politics professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

Lieberman said in a CNN interview this week that he wouldn't offer Crist advice, but added being an independent "gives me the latitude to try to be a bridge on a lot of different issues, to make things happen. Or sometimes not to be a bridge, just to speak out and say what I believe."

Though Democratic Party activists had lobbied to punish Lieberman for backing Republican presidential candidate John McCain and criticizing Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign, Rose notes that Democrats considered Lieberman's vote critical enough to keep him in their caucus and retain chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

"He's still a committee chair and he's been delivering bacon to the state with regularity," Rose said.

Rose predicts a similar path for Crist .

"The far right would be disappointed, but in terms of helping Republicans in Washington, they would need his vote and they would accommodate him," Rose said. " . . . They wouldn't ostracize him, given the potential of running filibusters."

In the end, Rose noted, it's the vote that counts: "Pragmatic politics supersedes principles when you need that extra vote."

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