The grass roots are burning

On May 12, Gov. Charlie Crist announced that he was running for the U.S. Senate. Fourteen minutes later, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP group charged with electing Republicans to the Great Deliberative Body, announced that it was endorsing Crist over his more conservative opponent, former Florida House Speaker and former Gov. Jeb Bush ally Marco Rubio.

For the NRSC, it was an obvious move. Despite governing over a state with a real-estate market in free-fall and skyrocketing unemployment, Crist enjoys astronomical poll numbers. According to an April poll, he has a 64 percent approval rating. He is beloved by moderates and even polls astoundingly well among Democrats, 66 percent of whom like him. In this purple state, he is as close as it gets to a sure thing.

For conservative activists, this is apostasy — and they're not about to take it lying down. "I hate that we're having to get into this," says John Hawkins, founder of the blog "There will be a fight in the Republican Party in Florida."

Hawkins is the leader of Not One Red Cent, a group of prominent conservative bloggers and activists demanding that the NRSC rescind its Crist endorsement. If it doesn't, they intend to cut off the financial spigot. "Why would we give them money to support a candidate we don't like?" asks Hawkins, a Rubio supporter.

On May 20, Hawkins and nearly two dozen others signed a letter to NRSC leader Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, asking that the party establishment admit it was "completely inappropriate for the NRSC to endorse a candidate" and demanding that it "maintain neutrality, and promise to spend no money directly or indirectly in that race."

The national media has cast this brouhaha as a battle for the soul of a Republican Party in decline, a fight between the conservative and moderate wings of the GOP. This comes on the heels of Sen. Arlen Specter's defection to the Democrats in April and the passage of Obama's nearly $800 billion stimulus package in February, which escaped Senate filibuster thanks to three Republican votes: Specter's and the two Maine moderate Republicans. Crist was an outspoken stimulus supporter; after all, the Florida Legislature needed that money to balance its budget. To the right-wing blogosphere, that was heresy.

But it's not just about the center versus the right, says Robert Stacy McCain, a signatory to the Not One Red Cent letter, American Spectator columnist and blogger at The Other McCain ( "It's not so much right-left as it is top-bottom," he argues. By crowning Crist over his younger, more conservative — and Hispanic — opponent, McCain sees the party establishment essentially sticking its finger in the eye of its base, the same base it relies upon for money and campaigning.

As he sees it, this was part of the Bush administration's problem: The party was run from Washington, D.C.; the activists were ignored. "It destroys initiative," McCain says, and it also foments the resentment that comes with having a candidate shoved down your throat. By the time the general election comes around, McCain says, "40 percent of the Republicans say, ‘I hate that son of a bitch.' People will stay home."

McCain notes that the same elite-versus-activist battle played out in the Democratic Party earlier this decade. The activists rallied behind Howard Dean; when he imploded, the safer, elite-friendly choice was Sen. John Kerry. After that, the activists took hold of the party. Dean became the leader of the Democratic National Committee. They successfully challenged Sen. Joe Lieberman in his 2006 Connecticut primary. They rallied behind Barack Obama instead of the more establishment choice in 2008, Hillary Clinton. And finally, they won. (As both he and Hawkins point out, 15 months before the Iowa caucuses, Obama polled far behind Clinton, as Rubio does now.)

"They decided not to wait for `strategist` Bob Schrum to lose another election," he continues. "That kind of politics is ultimately ineffective." This battle "transcends partisanship," McCain says. "It transcends ideology."

He pitches it as "ordinary Americans" against the "consultant-strategist-lobbyist-K Street mentality that exists in Washington. I think that's the fundamental problem of American politics in the 21st century."

Had the NRSC stayed out of it, Hawkins adds, Crist may well have coasted in a low-profile primary dominated by money and name recognition. With the sleeping giant aroused, that will no longer be the case.

"Florida is not Delaware, not Rhode Island, not Maine," he says. You don't have to be a moderate to win. And the national party certainly doesn't need to "immediately sandbag" a viable, conservative candidate.

The furor was such that on May 20 — the same day Not One Red Cent's letter went out — Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer dashed off a letter walking back his support of Crist. Greer, a longtime Crist backer, said that though he personally supported the governor, the state party would stay out of it.

That genie, however, seems to have escaped the bottle. On the Internet, conservative activists are gearing up for a primary war, even if it costs them the general election.

"To me it seems like such a waste `for the NRSC` to get involved in something like this," Hawkins says. "Now it's one of those things. We've got to get down there and teach these guys a lesson."

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