MIAMI — When former GOP governor Charlie Crist announced that he would run for his old job as a Democrat in 2014, party leaders rejoiced at the prospect of a pragmatic candidate able to win back centrist Republicans and independent voters who had soured on incumbent Rick Scott.
But Crist is taking a hard turn left as his campaign begins to take shape.
He has embraced President Obama’s health care law even as many Democrats distance themselves from it. He supports efforts to legalize medical marijuana and to overturn the gay marriage ban he initially backed. He has called for an increase in the minimum wage, something he once voted against.
‘‘Tallahassee is out of control,’’ he told supporters in declaring his candidacy. ‘‘The voice of the people has been silenced by the financial bullies and the special interests.’’
In seizing on the issues and rhetoric animating activists, Crist has made his populist campaign in the nation’s largest swing state a critical test case of whether his new party’s ascendant liberal wing is gaining momentum or overreaching.
‘The voice of the people has been silenced by the financial bullies and the special interests.’Charlie Crist
His appeals to economic populism could be particularly potent, with Florida voters identifying the economy as their chief concern this year.
Still, Crist’s approach concerns some Democrats.
Matt Bennett, a cofounder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, warned that ‘‘us-versus-them, people-versus-powerful rhetoric’’ could hurt Democrats in the most contested states.
‘‘That will work with a slice of the base, but that will not resonate with the kind of swing voters you need to prevail in places like Florida,’’ he said. Democrats ‘‘need to talk about a much broader set of ideas to create opportunity.’’
Nationally, Democrats are fighting to reshape the party after a devastating recession and amid a growing income gap.
Some members of the party favor a centrist economic strategy similar to the one Bill Clinton used to revive a moribund party two decades ago
Liberals such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren favor an aggressive populist approach. Democratic gubernatorial candidates in at least six states, including Florida, are making a minimum-wage increase a centerpiece of their campaigns.
Republicans say a higher minimum wage could jeopardize economic gains in a recovery. They would streamline regulations and provide training and education initiatives benefiting the private sector.
‘‘When I hear a politician say that we have to raise the minimum wage so working families can make ends meet, I cringe, because I know that statement is a lie,’’ Scott told the Tampa Bay Times last month. ‘‘Even if we did raise the minimum wage, working families will still not be able to make ends meet on those jobs. We need good jobs that lead to good careers for our families and that’s what I am focused on.’’
Scott argues that his spending reductions, tax cuts, and regulatory overhauls have built an ‘‘opportunity economy’’ by luring businesses to the state and helping create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
His latest budget proposal includes nearly $600 million in additional tax cuts, many of them aimed at consumers, including a rollback of auto registrations fees that were raised under Crist, who was governor from 2007 to 2011.
An overwhelming majority of Floridians say they generally are satisfied with their own personal financial situations. But their optimism hasn’t translated into strong confidence in the state’s economy or Scott.
Even as Florida outpaces the national recovery, just 38 percent believe the economy is getting better — the same percentage that thinks Scott deserves a second term, according to a Quinnipiac University survey last month.
Crist, who ran as an independent in the US Senate race in 2010 that sent Republican Marco Rubio to Washington, and then switched to the Democratic Party in late 2012, hopes to tap into that sentiment.
Crist’s platform also helps him boost his standing with skeptical activists in his new party and endears him to wealthy Democratic donors.