Republicans banking on hopes that Gov. Charlie Crist would return donations they made when he was the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate were in for a rude awakening on May 12, 2010, when Crist made it clear he is keeping their money.
"People gave to a good cause and we're going to spend it on a good cause," Crist told reporters outside of the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office, after changing his registration from Republican to no party affiliation."That's why I'm going to keep it. It's important to be able to get our message out and communicate with the people of Florida."
The decision to hold on to nearly $10 million in campaign donations prompted cries that Crist was flip-flopping -- like this statement from the Republican Party of Florida, or this video on the campaign website for Republican senate candidate Marco Rubio.
While Crist may have earned a Full-Flop on our Flip-O-Meter for switching parties to bolster his Senate bid, we wondered whether Crist flip-flopped on giving refunds.
Let's start with what Crist said about refunding donations before he made his independent run official on April 29, 2010.
April 26, speaking to reporters in Miami.
Reporter: Will you return Republican donor money, Republican Party money since you received that money as a Republican?
Crist: You know, I think that's a decision that you have to make if you made a decision to go independent. I haven't made that decision yet.
Crist also had this response for St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam C. Smith when asked about refunding the donations:"Anybody has the right and the opportunity to ask. I think we spent it though."
Next we'll look at what he said after announcing he would leave the Republican Party. Four days later, Crist appeared before a national audience on MSNBC's Morning Joe.
April 30, interview with Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's "Morning Joe"
Scarborough: "There are a lot of Republicans that are going to be asking you to give them the money back they gave you when you were running as a Republican, are you going to give them that money back or are you going to keep it?"
Crist: "Well, No. 1, nobody's asked me yet. Not one person has asked me yet. And I think they realize that the reality is they gave it to my campaign, they gave it to me in order to espouse the ideas I believe in."
Scarborough: "If they ask for money back, will you give it back to them or will you keep it for the campaign?"
Crist: "Ah, probably give it back to them. It's not that big a deal. What really matters is we're able to communicate our message."
So it's pretty clear in those comments that Crist favors returning the donations. But before we make our Flip-O-Meter ruling, here's what Crist said about two weeks later:
May 12, speaking to reporters outside of the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office when registering as no party affiliation.
"People gave to a good cause and we're going to spend it on a good cause," Crist told reporters. "That's why I'm going to keep it. It's important to be able to get our message out and communicate with the people of Florida."
The same day, Crist campaign spokeswoman Michelle Todd made it clear to reporters that the money was non-refundable at this point.
"We have never made an official statement before," Todd said, in an interview with Miami Herald political reporter Beth Reinhard. "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."
Crist explained his decision a day later in a meeting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. He was asked if there would have been any downside to returning the money: "Probably wouldn't be. ... I want it. I need it. I want to win."
And one last note, as he opened his campaign headquarters in St. Petersburg on May 15, Crist was heckled by someone in the crowd who asked, "What about the guys who gave you money when you were a Republican?!"
"I'm going to keep it!" Crist cheerfully responded, drawing roars of approval. (Watch the St. Petersburg Times' video here and check out his wink around 3:10 into the clip.)
We should point out that Crist has returned some campaign donations, according to reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission, but for a different reason. He returned $76,250 in donations from the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein to a bankruptcy trustee, and another $9,600 from Rothstein and his wife to the U.S. Marshall's office. Also, Republican donor Al Hoffman got his $4,800 returned in February because of allegations of excessive spending by the Republican Party of Florida and Crist's hand-picked chairman Jim Greer.
So in less than three weeks, Crist went from telling reporters he had yet to make a decision on running for indepedent, to running as an independent and "probably" giving the money back, to "officially" declaring he would keep the money.
Our main issue is Crist's use of the word "probably" during his Morning Joe interview. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines probably as "insofar as seems reasonably true, factual, or to be expected: without much doubt."
Crist said he would "probably give it back to them," leading donors to believe that as the dictionary states it was "to be expected" or "without much doubt" that they would see some of their cash back from Crist.
We find Crist completely changed his position from entertaining the idea of giving the money back, to definitely not giving the money back. Our verdict: Full Flop.