- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Florida Senate committee has recommended making it tougher for political candidates to switch or leave parties in mid-campaign, a move spurred by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s bolt from the Republican Party to run as an independent for U.S. Senate.

The Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee also calls for a “sore-loser statute” that would prohibit party-affiliated candidates who lose a primary from re-entering the race as in independent.

“The issue is whether Florida law regarding candidates who change political parties while running for office is unambiguous and expansive enough to promote the state’s interests in political stability and maintaining integrity in the various routes to the ballot,” said a report released this month by the committee. “After careful review, some changes appear worthy of consideration.”

The panel cited other states, including California and Colorado, that have stricter election laws regarding candidates switching or leaving parties.

The committee suggested that candidates be registered with a party - or to be a declared independent - one year before they must qualify for the office they seek. Since the qualification deadline for federal offices typically is about six months before the November general election, candidates would be locked into party or “non-party” status about 18 months before the final election, “effectively preventing last-minute party-switching for personal political gain.”

Florida law currently says candidates can change their party status up to six months before a general election.

The committee cited Mr. Crist’s change in party status as an impetus for its report. The governor, who in April was trailing Marco Rubio by more than 20 percentage points in polls in the Republican Senate primary, abandoned the GOP and announced an independent candidacy less than 24 hours before the qualification deadline.

The governor didn’t officially change his party affiliation from Republican to “no party” until 12 days after he qualified to run as an independent.

The switch allowed Mr. Crist to bypass the August primary and be placed directly on the Nov. 2 general election ballot, angering many of his former Republican supporters and contributors.

The move immediately was followed by slight lead in the polls for the governor in a three-way general election race with Mr. Rubio and Democrat Rep. Kendrick B. Meek. Mr. Crist since has slipped in the polls and now trails Mr. Rubio, the front-runner, by more than 10 percentage points in most surveys.

The committee report is nonbinding, though such proposals often are a preliminary step to future legislation.

But while the report may resonate with Republicans in the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature still miffed at Mr. Crist, it’s uncertain if the proposed changes will gain traction when the Legislature meets next year in Tallahassee.

“The way [Florida] Republicans operate is a very coordinated, ideologically cohesive fashion. If they want to do this, they will do it, and they can do it,” said Robert Crew, a longtime political science professor at Florida State University. “I’m just not sure the extent to which this is a big high-priority item for them.”

Mr. Crew added that, other than Mr. Crist, candidates switching or leaving parties isn’t a common occurrence in Florida elections.

Nationally, however, the practice has had a few high-profile practitioners in recent years.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, after losing the Alaska Republican primary in August to “tea party” favorite Joe Miller, launched an aggressive write-in campaign and now is in a close race. And Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was re-elected in 2006 as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont.