As speculation that Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will run for U.S. Senate as an independent reaches a fever pitch, it's worth revisiting Sen. Joe Lieberman's independent run in 2006. Consider the parallels. Back then, Lieberman was attacked by Democrats for embracing (allegedly kissing, actually) a Republican president and enabling the most loathed element of that president's agenda (the Iraq War). In the current cycle, Crist has been attacked by Republicans for embracing (half-hugging, really) a Democratic president and enabling the most loathed element of that president's agenda (the stimulus package).
There are other similarities, too. Lieberman was challenged by an upstart, Ned Lamont, who came from nowhere, hammered him for playing footsie with Republicans, ignited a grassroots rebellion among hard-core Democrats, and drove Lieberman from the party. Crist has had to contend with Marco Rubio, who materialized unexpectedly, attacked him for collaborating with Democrats, ignited a grassroots rebellion among Republican conservatives, and may be on the brink of driving Crist from the GOP.
So does Lieberman, who ended up beating Lamont by 7 points, offer Crist a recipe for success? Possibly. The Connecticut senator won by assembling a coalition of Democrats, independents, and Republicans. He established his distance from President Bush and focused on statewide concerns. He played up his seniority and experience. And he positioned himself above the partisan fray, casting Lamont as a "partisan polarizer" and an ideological extremist. "Parties are important, but they're not as important as the public interest, and the national interest," Lieberman said at the time. That posture suited him well, allowing him to embrace his centrism and remain unbeholden to the left wing of the Democratic Party. "This race as an independent has been liberating," he said on the eve of his victory.
Crist would probably feel the same way. He has always seemed most comfortable as a moderate—the "people's governor," as he puts it. And he could present himself as an antidote to the poisonous partisanship that reigns in Washington these days. Rubio has moved so far to the right that he's vulnerable to being painted as an extremist. And on the Democratic side, Rep. Kendrick Meek, who's still largely unknown to most voters in the state, has a record that Crist could attack as liberal. An independent run "would be difficult," says Daniel Smith, a political-science professor at the University of Florida. But Crist "is a consummate populist who has his ear to the ground." Crist can live without the tea partiers who have flocked to Rubio and focus on moderates in both parties and those with no party affiliation, says Smith. "The question is who can build the coalition. I think Crist is positioned better than the other two."
A recent Quinnipiac poll backs that up. In a three-way matchup, with Crist running as an independent, he had the edge, with 32 percent of the vote, compared with 30 percent for Rubio and 24 percent for Meek. Crist drew 30 percent of Republicans, 27 percent of Democrats, and 38 percent of independents.
Yet Crist is still wrestling with his decision—and for good reason. "If he switches to run as an independent, he's done [as a Republican]," one GOP strategist in Tallahassee told me. Which means that if Crist were to lose in November, he probably wouldn't be able to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012 as a Republican. "That's a high risk," the strategist said. GOP leaders have already made it abundantly clear that Crist's departure would be seen as traitorous and would be severely punished. Which brings us back to Lieberman. Once he defected from the Democrats, he never looked back. And if anything, the base of his former party hates him more than ever.