Sunday, January 10, 2010

the first tea party senator?

NYTimes | Gov. Charlie Crist wants to fill the seat vacated in September by Mel Martinez, also a Republican. His Democratic opponent in the fall would likely be Representative Kendrick Meek. But first Crist must survive a civil war: a Republican primary fight against Marco Rubio, the 38-year-old former speaker of the Florida House who has become a cause célèbre of the national conservative movement and drew even with Crist last month in a Rasmussen poll (after trailing the governor by almost 30 percentage points over the summer). Crist has become a conservative scourge, for reasons he seems at a loss to understand and that in some ways have nothing to do with him.

It is not uncommon for a party out of power to undergo an identity crisis and an internal bloodletting, and it is Crist’s bad luck that his race in 2010 fits the frame of a philosophical debate that has been fulminating in the Republican Party for several months. The race, and the national debate, pits the governing pragmatists against the ideological purists. The purists say that a Republican revival depends on hewing to conservative ideas, resisting compromise and generally taking a dim view of government. Tea Party rallies are filled with such purists, whose populist icons — Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News’s Glenn Beck — tend to be unburdened by the pressures of governing through a recession.

Not long ago, Jim DeMint, a Republican senator from South Carolina, summed up the purity side this way: “I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs.” And when I asked Rubio recently which current senator he most admires, he said DeMint.

Crist represents the governing pragmatist who was once seen as a winner who could reclaim the political center for Republicans. He was a popular governor with crossover appeal among Democrats and independents. For a time, Arnold Schwarzenegger fit this mold in California. So did, to a degree, Mitt Romney, when he was the governor of Massachusetts, and Mike Huckabee in Arkansas, though each worked to present himself as ideologically pure in his presidential run.

Rubio, who has been dominating straw polls of conservative advocates across Florida while pulling even in real ones, is Hispanic, uses Twitter and listens to Snoop Dogg — not your grandmother’s Republican, in other words.

“There are people who believe the way to be more successful as Republicans is to be more like Democrats,” Rubio told me early last month, essentially distilling his case against Crist, whom he keeps describing backhandedly as “a really nice, pleasant guy.” “And the people who believe we need to be more like Democrats will vote for Charlie Crist.” There is also the more stylistic question of whether Crist’s conciliatory approach fits with the basic tenor of an impatient opposition party. He may not be angry enough to win a Republican primary this year.