Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bankrolling the Man or the Party

Now that he’s running for a Florida Senate seat as an Independent, and even leaving open the possibility that he’ll caucus with Democrats if elected, Charlie Crist has decided not to pay back campaign contributions he received mostly from partisan Republicans (my emphasis):

“Gov. Charlie Crist told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough on April 30 that he would ‘probably’ give refunds to donors who don't approve of him leaving the GOP. Some donors to his U.S. Senate campaign were told before the switch that they would get their money back or pro-rated refunds.

"No more. A couple of hours before Crist officially becomes an NPA voter, campaign spokeswoman Michelle Todd said there will be no refunds. Asked whether that amounts to a flip-flop, she said, ‘We have never made an official statement before. It is now the official statement. They donated to the Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate Campaign, and it's still the Charlie Crist for U.S. Senate Campaign.’"
I gather that, under current law, contributors who want their money back don’t have a cause of action against Crist. But do they have a right to complain about the morality of his refusal to refund their money? That depends on how you understand the relation between party affiliation and the identity of a candidate. When he accepted the contributions, was Crist a candidate who just happened to be Republican, or a Republican candidate?

Fifty years ago, when the major parties were less ideologically homogeneous in their composition and their congressional caucuses were much less ideologically disciplined in their voting patterns than they are today, those questions were harder to answer than they are now. I don’t think, for example, that someone who contributed to Strom Thurmond’s campaign would have that strong a claim to a refund after Thurmond bolted from the Democratic Party to the Dixiecrats. Being a segregationist was at least as integral to Thurmond’s political identity as being a Democrat. So when the Democratic Party included a civil rights plank in its platform at its 1948 National Convention, Thurmond probably wasn’t betraying many of his supporters by deserting his party.

Joe Lieberman’s decision to run as an Independent Democrat in the Connecticut senatorial election after losing the Democratic primary in 2006 presents a closer call. He wasn’t just any Democrat; he’d been the party’s vice-presidential candidate six short years before. But it was only three years ago that Lieberman’s position on the Iraq war had been embraced by the overwhelming majority of the Democratic congressional caucus. So when he stuck to his guns on Iraq, Lieberman could argue that it wasn’t he, but the rest of party, that was betraying its political identity. That didn’t convince many Democrats nation-wide of his good faith, but it was apparently good enough for lot of Connecticut Democrats who continued to support Lieberman knowing that he'd try his best to caucus with the Democrats if he were elected.

The only readily visible thing that’s prompting Crist’s departure from the Republican Party, however, is his own political ambition. Granted, he’s managed to get himself elected as a Republican governor in a state where there are more registered Democrats than Republicans. So he may well be able to get enough independent and Democratic votes to win a three-way Senate race. But the suggestion that most of Crist's Republican contributors wrote out a check more because they think he's a man of high principle than a viable Republican is merely funny.

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