Florida governor Charlie Crist just announced that he's leaving the Republican party to become an independent candidate, making the Florida Senate race more chaotic than Daytona Beach during Spring Break.

There have been hints for several weeks that the once-popular governor would be leaving his party because he couldn't beat Tea Party-backed Marco Rubio in the Republican primary. First, he pulled his ad campaign, which suggested that he was going to drop below the radar to re-tool his message. Yesterday, the Times reported that Crist had spent the last week calling his major donors to inform them of his plan to run as an Independent. Political journalists began preparing various headline puns like "Crist Rises Again" or "Crist on a Cross." Earlier today, the Florida Republican party had already removed Charlie Crist from its website, replacing him with relative non-entity Jeff Kottkamp, the state's Lieutenant Governor.

Crist is relatively popular with Democrats and independents, and he'll still pull some share of Republicans, so we should see a fairly even three-way showdown in the Sunshine State, with Crist squaring off against Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Kendrick Meek. This is fantastic news for Meek, who was previously expected to lose to the Republican nominee in a two-way race. He now has a path to victory that doesn't rely on courting independent voters. It's also somewhat notable that both major party candidates are minorities: Rubio is Cuban and Meek is African-American.

Despite his name recognition, handsome silver hair and golden glow, Crist faces a tough road ahead. While he should have the support of the teachers' union, it is expected that most of his current Republican campaign staff will quit. Many of his donors might ask for refunds, and it's not clear where Crist will find a new fundraising base. He has about $7 million on hand, but needs two or three times that much to run a credible race in Florida.

Crist has given every indication that he would caucus with Republicans if elected, though one can't always take him at his word. After all, here's what his campaign manager Eric Eikenberg said exactly three weeks ago, when this idea was first floated: "To put these rumors to rest once and for all, as we have said countless times before, Gov. Crist is running for the United States Senate as a Republican. He will not run as an Independent or as a No Party Affiliation." And yet "No Party Affiliation" is exactly what Florida voters will see listed below Crist's name on the ballot when they go to the polls in November. [CNN]