A dilemma for Florida Democrats in Charlie Crist

In September 1964, two months after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina–the former Dixiecrat candidate for president who specialized in epic filibusters of civil rights laws and who was one of 21 Democrats, plus six Republicans, to vote against the ‘64 bill–quit the Democratic Party.

He became one of only two Republican senators to represent a Southern state. (The other was John Tower of Texas.)

When Old Strom passed away in 2008, he was praised by people like Congressman Joe “You Lie” Wilson and Senator Jeff Sessions as having helped to build the modern Republican Party in the South.

Thurmond was one of the most famous party-jumpers in American political history, but he was far from the only one. Lots of politicians have done it–Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott…

On the other side, Republican Jim Jeffords and Democrat Joe Lieberman both became Independents in 2001 and 2006, and Arlen Specter, the 29-year Republican senator from Pennsylvania, became a Democrat in 2009.

Which brings us to Charlie Crist, who this morning announced that he will run for Florida governor as a Democrat. Crist has not only been governor of Florida before back in 2006, he was a lifelong, and at one time considered a “conservative,” Republican. John McCain even considered him for his running mate in 2008.

As governor, he signed a ban on gay adoption, and was considered both a social and fiscal conservative. But now, Charlie Crist’s former party has moved so far to the right, that he was essentially pushed out. 

His sins? In 2008, Crist held the polls open so that the long lines of voters could cast their ballots, which helped Barack Obama win the state and the White House. As governor, he vetoed a bill that would have required women to pay for an ultrasound before getting an abortion, restored voting rights for former felons, and vetoed a union-busting merit pay bill for teachers.

So can Charlie Crist reinvent himself as a centrist Democrat and get back into the governor’s mansion? Polls indicate that yes, he would beat Rick Scott. But some Democrats say no, and here’s an ad that’s currently running on YouTube from Cirst’s Democratic opponents, who are supporting his primary challenger, Nan Rich:

But here’s the thing: Republican politics, which is so toxic right now, has shown the danger of purity tests. If Crist can win, would Democrats be smarter to embrace the convert rather than risk losing? That’s essentially what happened in 2010 when enough Democrats stuck with the purer candidate, former Congressman Kendrick Meek, to throw the Senate race to Marco Rubio.

That’s the question Florida Democrats will have to ask themselves in 2014.