- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 29, 2010

One Republican senator has asked Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to return a $1,000 contribution to his Senate campaign, and other senators are expected to follow suit if Mr. Crist announces Thursday he’s dropping out of the Republican primary in Florida to run as an independent.

Mr. Crist is scheduled to make an announcement Thursday about his plans. Although he reportedly has told aides he’s going to make the move, Mr. Crist called the Associated Press to deny he’d made up his mind or told anyone of a decision.

Dropping out would clear the path for former state House Speaker Marco Rubio to secure the Republican nomination, likely setting up a three-way battle in November among Mr. Rubio, Mr. Crist and Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, a Democrat.

But Mr. Crist would face a tough task, compounded by the possibilities that much of his campaign staff could leave and many donors could demand their contributions be returned.

“That letter went out today after we got the word,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, whose political action committee contributed $1,000 to Mr. Crist’s campaign in June. “I do my PAC to help support Republicans.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose recruitment helped bring Mr. Crist into the race in the first place, said he hasn’t heard any decision from the governor. If a switch is in the offing, he said, he will ask for a refund of the $10,000 his political action committee has given.

“I suspect you’ll see a number of Republican senators ask for their money back,” Mr. Cornyn said.

Mr. Crist’s campaign was not commenting Wednesday, but Florida Republicans said he’ll suffer if he jumps.

“Charlie seems to have burned a lot of bridges, and I don’t see him hurting our party if he drops out of our Senate primary and runs on his own,” a former state party official said. The official said Mr. Rubio will not lose Republican voters to Mr. Crist, and questioned where Mr. Crist’s base of support will be.

The governor, who a year ago was the clear favorite, has tumbled as Mr. Rubio has ridden the wave of discontent captured by “tea party” voters. In recent days, Mr. Rubio secured endorsements of high-profile Republicans, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

In a Republican primary matchup, Mr. Rubio has a clear lead over Mr. Crist. However, in a three-way matchup, the results are less certain.

A Rasmussen Reports poll taken April 21 found Mr. Rubio leading with 37 percent, followed by Mr. Crist at 30 percent and Mr. Meek at 24 percent. A poll earlier in April had shown Mr. Crist with a slight lead over Mr. Rubio.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, smiled as he waved off reporters’ questions about the Florida race at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday afternoon.

But the head of the Democratic National Committee, speaking to reporters earlier in the day, said his party will retain majorities in both houses of Congress because Republican infighting will wound the GOP too deeply.

“We don’t have a civil war going on in the Democratic Party,” said DNC Chairman Tim Kaine. “We know who our leader is.”

“In places like Florida and Texas, our chances are being improved by the corrosiveness on the other side,” he said.

If Mr. Crist does run as an independent, he likely will lose much of his campaign staff, who would hurt their prospects for employment with Republicans if they aided the governor’s insurgent bid.

For now, the governor holds a fundraising edge with more money raised - $10.2 million - and more cash on hand than either opponent.

But the governor could lose a chunk of the $7.5 million cash he has on hand if he has to refund some to donors.

There’s no obligation to give money back, but the conservative Club for Growth said it will lead a charge to get average donors to ask for their money back, just as they did to Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania when he switched from Republican to Democrat last year.

Spokesman Michael Connolly said the club, with approval from the Federal Election Commission, sent letters to a group of Mr. Specter’s donors asking them to request their money back.

Mr. Connolly said that effort accounted for between $800,000 and $1.1 million Mr. Specter had to refund. Mr. Connolly also said that while Mr. Specter, as a new Democrat, could go to labor unions, trial lawyers or other big Democratic donors to replenish his treasury, Mr. Crist will have a tougher time since he’s running outside of a party.

Still, the immediate threat to Mr. Crist’s funds comes from Republican lawmakers, whose political action committees had given nearly $90,000.

Some of those waved off questions Thursday about what they’ll do.

“He hasn’t switched,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who is locked in a primary battle with former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

c David Eldridge contributed to this report.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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