Rumors are everywhere that former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is planning a move to the Democratic Party. And, boy, are some people livid. Republicans are calling him “two-faced” and launching unflattering websites ridiculing their former standard-bearer. Some Democrats are equally put off about their adversary switching sides.
I say, Charlie, welcome to the party!
First, a history lesson. The idea of people changing political affiliations is nothing new to Florida. In the decades after the 1960’s, loads of Dixie Democrats left the party for the GOP angered over President Johnson’s support of the Civil Rights Act. (Pretty sure Lincoln would have found that ironic). Florida Gov. Claude Kirk ran for statewide office repeatedly as both a Democrat and Republican.
But over the last 20 years, Democrats lost their overwhelming electoral dominance of voter registration, for a variety of reasons, to the point where Florida is now truly a “purple” state. Democrats Obama, Clinton, and (I would argue) Gore all won the state, as did Republicans Bush, Scott and Crist.
The truth is, it’s only natural, given the extreme hard right turn the Republican Party has taken, that so many folks, like Crist, feel unwelcomed or at sea.
During this last primary season, Americans were aghast watching Republican debate audiences boo a gay U.S. soldier who asked a question about “don’t ask don’t tell.” Or the chants of “let ‘em die” when Republican presidential contenders were asked whether we should provide lifesaving care to an uninsured American. Yes, those voices were probably outliers, but not one of the eight people who held themselves out as presidential timber – not one, including their eventual nominee – had the courage to tell the audience that’s not who we are.
This is the same party that demands its members take oaths to never raise a tax, and purifies itself of true leaders like U.S. Senator Dick Lugar who commit the sin of working with the opposing party to address our nation’s security challenges. It’s no wonder that a Republican stalwart like Jeb Bush would opine that neither his father -- nor even Ronald Reagan -- would have been nominated by today’s Republican party.
That is why I firmly believe the Democratic Party should embrace Republicans and independent voters who are no longer comfortable with the GOP’s rigid and extreme dogma. It doesn’t sacrifice our principles to invite newcomers and accept political refugees whose world-view is more aligned with ours. As the Republican Party becomes increasingly obedient to the far-right wing, this isn’t just smart politics; it’s the right thing to do.
One way to really make that happen is for the Democratic Party to invite independent voters to participate in our 2014 primary for governor. These voters make up 20 percent of the electorate, and up to now have only been bystanders in the process of selecting nominees for our state’s highest office. By including them in the primary process, our candidates will have to reach out to them. They may like what they hear and, more importantly, our candidates may learn something if they listen.
Independents, and swing voters in general, tend to determine statewide elections. In 2004 they voted for Bush; in 2008 they went for Obama. And as the Republican Party becomes increasingly divorced from the mainstream, the numbers of independent voters will only grow.
Democrats have a right to include independent voters in their primary, and could with a simple internal rule change by the Florida Democratic Party. No less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that political parties have a “right of association” that allows them to include unaffiliated voters in their nomination process. This is a real opportunity that should not be passed up.
Too many Americans rightfully believe the electoral process is in disrepair. Trying to reverse the trend of hyper-partisanship is a righteous step that should be taken.
So, to Charlie or any other voter who feels the need to make a move, our tent is pretty big and can get somewhat raucous at times because we definitely don’t walk in lockstep. But if you want a Florida whose best days are ahead, then come on in and make yourself at home.
Dan Gelber was a State Senator and former House Democratic Leader from Miami.
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