Report: Crist set to leave GOP, run as an independent

The Hill was hinting about it last night and now, right on cue, the rumors are flying. Honestly, I don’t get it. I get leaving the party to avoid an unwinnable primary against Rubio, but why run as an indie when you could run as a Democrat?

Two highly placed and independent sources, speaking strictly on background, tell me that Gov. Charlie Crist is preparing to leave the Republican Party and run as an independent in the race for the U.S. Senate…

Another well-placed source tells me the reason several Crist campaign staffers left recently is because, being committed Republicans, they refused to take part in an independent Senate run by Crist. That’s not confirmed by an independent second source, but it does ring true.

Now, reports from anonymous sources are sometimes wrong, so I have stopped short of reporting a Crist independent run as a verifiable fact, even though I believe my sources are accurate.

Two precedents here: Lieberman running, and winning, as an independent in Connecticut and Specter running, and likely losing, as a newly-minted Democrat in Pennsylvania this year. Given the difference in results, following Liebs’s lead is a no-brainer, right? Not so fast. For one thing, the general election in Connecticut wasn’t a traditional three-way race. Because the state is overwhelmingly Democratic, it was basically a rerun of the Democratic primary with a marginal Republican wild card tossed in. Under those circumstances, it makes sense for conservatives to vote for the conservative Democrat instead of throwing their vote away on the GOP. In a purplish state like Pennsylvania or Florida, you’re more likely to see a traditional three-way dynamic where committed Dems and Repubs vote for their parties while centrists break every which way. For Crist to win as an indie, they’d all have to break for him. Tain’t likely, especially with conservative enthusiasm in November likely to mean massive turnout for Rubio. Crist will need every centrist Republican he can get plus a huge swath of Democrats, but how does he manage that if there’s a nominee with name recognition — namely, Kendrick Meek — running on the Democratic ticket?

The smarter play is to follow Specter’s lead by going Democrat, kissing up to Obama in hopes that the White House will “pull a Sestak” with Meek, taking his chances with Meek in a Democratic primary if he can’t be bought off, and then hoping that rank-and-file Dems line up behind him with an “anyone but Rubio” vote in November. Even that scenario is unlikely, though. Rubio may be an ideologue but, a la The One, he’s a young, soft-spoken, charismatic ideologue, which makes it harder to goose turnout by demonizing him. In fact, Daily Kos polled a hypothetical three-way race between Crist, Meek, and Rubio back in November and found a tight 32/31/27 split — at a time when Rubio was still trailing Crist head to head by 11 points. There’s been a 30-point swing since then, which makes me think Rubio’s probably somewhere around 40 percent right now in a three-man contest. With prominent Republicans lining up behind him and many Dems bound to vote the party line, how does Crist come up with 41 percent from what’s left?

I was planning to write about Rubio’s credit-card “scandal” before the Crist news broke, but there actually isn’t much to say about it. Read the story, bearing two things in mind. One: According to Jack Funari, who wrote the piece about Crist possibly turning indie, Rubio’s charges on his GOP credit card were actually dramatically less than most Republican pols’. (“From what’s been made public, Rubio’s credit card expenses make him the most frugal of the Republican leaders with RPOF credit cards.”) Two: Since Rubio reimbursed the party for all personal charges, the story’s likely dead — unless there’s some tax angle related to imputed income. Which, per the reimbursement, there probably isn’t.

Exit question: McCain told The Hill this morning that he’d “be glad to try to help” Crist if and when Crist asks him to. Does that still apply if Crist bolts the party?