TALLAHASSEE — When former Gov. Charlie Crist left the Republican Party, it was pretty clear there was no turning back.
Not only did the party establishment kick Crist on his way out the door, they keep kicking him over and over again any chance they get. But Crist, who lost his independent bid for Senate last year, is finding friends in the Democratic Party.
Since leaving office in January and taking a job at a personal injury law firm, Crist has done events with a number of prominent Democrats, including Alex Sink, who was her party's nominee to replace Crist; former Sen. Bob Graham, who has also served as governor; and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. He's donated money to Democrat Patrick Murphy, who hopes to challenge Republican Congressman Allen West, a South Florida freshman who is a national tea party favorite. And on top of all that, his wife, Carole, recently registered as a Democrat.
It's led to speculation that Crist will seek to return to public office with the only party that will welcome him — Democrats.
"Why would he do events with some folks who are trying to chop his knees?" said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat from Crist's hometown of St. Petersburg. "He would rather be with some folks who are accepting, tolerant and happy about you being around."
Rouson has heard the open speculation about whether Crist will register as a Democrat to continue his political career, but says he has deliberately not talked to the former governor about it, saying they have been personal friends for years and he doesn't want to put pressure on the governor, nor have to endure the questions from others trying to glean information about Crist's future.
Crist, 55, acknowledges that he has been courted by Democrats.
"That's always kind," Crist said, but adding he plans to remain without a party for a while and has no plans to run for office again. "I'm enjoying the private sector so much. The freedom that it provides is so nice."
He said, though, that his wife is now more comfortable in the Democratic Party — and considering what Republicans say about her husband, it's probably not a surprise. When her party change was reported by The Associated Press last week, it was a hot topic among Florida political insiders on Twitter, many of whom speculated Crist would eventually join her.
"Is anyone surprised? Guess who is next?" tweeted John Stemberger, a social conservative who helped Crist's opponent in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary.
"One step at a time," tweeted Kevin Cate, who previously worked for Sink and now runs a public relations firm.
And just because he has no immediate plans to run, it doesn't mean that won't change. State Rep. Luis Garcia of Miami Beach, a former Florida Democratic Party vice chair who is running for Congress, said he called Crist about the speculation.
"He told me he was happy doing what he was doing, but of course, that doesn't mean a thing," Garcia said. "Right now Charlie Crist is persona non grata in the Republican Party and I would be happy to have him as a Democrat."
Crist has been a politician for most of his adult life. He won a state Senate seat in 1992 before unsuccessfully challenging Graham in the 1998 U.S. Senate race. He then won three straight statewide offices — education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2006. He has a natural talent as a retail politician, working crowds with a comfort and ease and exuding a charisma that appeals to voters. Plus he has near universal name ID in Florida and is known as a tremendous fundraiser.
His approval ratings were high through most of term as governor, and while Republicans abandoned him in droves, polls showed he still had support among many Democratic voters during his independent run for Senate. He was endorsed by several Democrats, including former Congressman Robert Wexler, who describes himself as a "fire-breathing liberal." And right now his successor, Gov. Rick Scott, has a low approval rating. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed only 37 percent of voters thought Scott was doing a good job.
"I have no doubt Crist could match up well against Rick Scott as a Democrat. The question is could he get past a primary?" said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who worker for Sink last year and led President Barack Obama's Florida operation when he carried the state in 2008. "The biggest challenge Crist has is convincing skeptical Democrats, and there aren't just a handful of them, that he's the real deal, that he's someone that they can trust and someone that's going to stick with them."
Schale said there isn't a Democratic gathering he attends without the subject of Crist coming up, with half of those he talks to thinking it would be great to see Crist run for office as a Democrat and the other half opposed to supporting a man they fought for years as a Republican.
Crist, however, can point to several actions in office where he scored points with Democrats, including vetoes of bills championed by Republicans that would have forced women to get an ultrasound before having an abortion and tied teacher merit pay to student test scores. Similar bills were signed by Scott. Crist was also a leader on climate change issues and expanding access to voting. Scott and the Republican Cabinet reversed a decision under Crist to automatically restore voting rights for non-violent felons who have completed their sentences. Republicans under Scott have also passed an elections bill that Democrats say make it harder for some people to vote.
He also famously hugged President Barack Obama in 2009 at a Southwest Florida rally in support the president's stimulus package. Some say it was the beginning of the end of Crist's support among Republicans, but could help him with Democrats.
Still, before leaving the GOP, Crist frequently called himself a conservative and "pro-life" on abortion, but said he preferred to change hearts and not laws on that issue.
Republicans fully expect Crist to join the other side and run for governor.
"If I was in Las Vegas and someone gave me a $300 chip on whether he was going to do it or not, I would say he is," said Tony DiMatteo, a state Republican Party executive committee member from Pinellas County. "He's a political animal — that's just his arena — and that's his opportunity to get back into it. He has to do it as a Democrat."
And if he does, state Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said he won't succeed. He said Crist has exposed himself to voters as a political opportunist last year.
"Voters don't like chameleons," Curry said. "If he decides to run (as a Democrat) in the future, they're going to see right through it."