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Charlie Crist plays the boogeyman in Florida GOP primaries

Charlie Crist famously left the Republican Party six years ago, but the GOP isn't quite ready to let him go.

In Republican primary races statewide, the ex-governor's signature white hair and deep tan are as much a staple of GOP contests as yard signs, Obamacare opposition and National Rifle Association endorsements.

In Panama City, supporters of Republican candidate Mary Thomas slammed Neal Dunn, her GOP rival for Congress, in a television ad calling him a liberal and declaring that he backed Crist because he donated to him in 2009. Never mind that Crist was still a Republican then. Dunn's supporters returned fire with ads blasting Thomas for working at the Department of Community Affairs when Crist was governor and "collecting her paycheck" after Crist left the Republican Party.

Three hundred miles east, near Jacksonville in another Republican congressional primary, John Rutherford and Hans Tanzler have both pointed to donations the other made to Crist more than seven years ago as proof they lack conservative credentials. And while Rutherford's campaign has hit Tanzler for being appointed by Crist in 2008 to the St. Johns River Water Management Board, Tanzler's team points out Rutherford had a longer relationship with Crist that went back to a 2001 campaign donation Rutherford gave Crist during his run for attorney general.

And in the U.S. Senate race, Republican Carlos Beruff has been running ads aimed at Fox News audiences comparing Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential ambitions to Crist's political aspirations. The charge comes from Beruff, who himself has been criticized for attending a Crist fundraiser in Sarasota in 2010 after Crist left the Republican Party.

In short, Crist has become a potent weapon in Republican primary races. More than just being a Democrat, Crist touches a nerve with activist Republicans years later because of his 2010 party exit.

"Obviously he is a pariah to Republicans," said Brett Doster, campaign manager for Tanzler in the 4th Congressional District race near Jacksonville.

Doster said it has become a routine tactic to look for opponents' ties to Crist. He said it is typically easy to find "soft flesh" because when Crist was a popular Republican governor, no one thought twice about giving him money or accepting an appointment.

In 2009, Crist — then a life-long Republican — had a job approval over 60 percent and had been on the shortlist to be Republican presidential candidate John McCain's running mate. Less than a year later, Crist's fortunes went south.

Badly trailing Rubio in a primary for the U.S. Senate, Crist abandoned the party of Abraham Lincoln to run as an independent. He lost, but two years later, Crist was helping President Barack Obama win re-election en route to becoming a Democrat.

Ever since, GOP candidates have disavowed Crist.

Tying a candidate to Crist is significant, said Brad Herold, former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida. He said internal polling consistently shows that three out of four GOP primary voters, particularly in North Florida, are less likely to support a candidate with ties to Crist.

Herold tried capitalizing on that bias when he managed the U.S. Senate campaign for Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has since dropped out. Even before Beruff filed to run for the Senate, Herold bought a website domain called "CharlieCristRepublican" that points to Beruff's ties to Crist.

DeSantis wasn't alone in tarring Beruff with the Crist brush. Every time Beruff has tried to go on the attack, Rubio's camp responds by noting Beruff is a "Crist insider."

Beruff shrugs off the attacks, saying he, like other Republicans, only donated to Crist when he was a Republican. He said when Crist "got silly" he stopped helping him. Other candidates fighting the Crist taint say the same. Their donations or ties were before his switch.

But there is an irony in the attacks that may help illustrate just why the Republican Party is in such turmoil these days, said Keith Fitzgerald, a New College of Florida political science professor and former Democratic candidate for Congress who supported Crist. In turning Crist into a slur, the party is demonizing the most popular governor the party ever nominated in Florida and one who was popular largely because he was a coalition builder who could reach beyond party lines.

"A retroactive attack on someone who appealed across party lines is representative of the problem Republicans are having now," Fitzgerald said.

Doster said there is a limited shelf-life to criticizing Republicans seen in public with Crist. But he said every time Crist runs for another office it bolsters the line of attack for just a bit longer.

"Charlie Crist is just this gift that keeps on giving," Doster said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

Charlie Crist plays the boogeyman in Florida GOP primaries 08/19/16 [Last modified: Saturday, August 20, 2016 10:09pm]
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