Charlie Crist, Nikki Fried look for voter turnout help heading into Democratic primary
TALLAHASSEE — Facing a dog days of summer August primary with only modest amounts of cash to spend, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried are looking to endorsements to help drive supporters to the polls.
This week, the state’s largest labor organization is expected to pick a favorite for the Aug. 23 Democratic primary, with signs pointing toward the Florida AFL-CIO giving Crist their nod. It would prove another big membership group in the corner of the St. Petersburg congressman and former Republican governor.
But Fried, the state’s Agriculture Commissioner, says she’s not daunted by the line-up of powerful allies siding with her rival.
“We have received a tremendous amount of endorsements from different Democratic caucuses…these are the people who are on the ground, actually working every day to make in this state,” Fried said. “They’re with me.”
Crist is cresting on the success of endorsements from the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, environmentalists with the Sierra Club of Florida, Communications Workers of America and the Service Employees International Union, all potent vote-driving forces in Democratic politics.
The teachers union, the FEA, is the largest affiliated union in the AFL-CIO. And teachers’ support for Crist has left many concluding that may bring another endorsement his way when the AFL-CIO holds its endorsing convention Thursday and Friday in Orlando.
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For her part, Fried has nabbed the backing of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, the Florida College Democrats and Women’s Voices of Southwest Florida, organizations which tout her strengths in areas ranging from voting access to abortion rights.
She’s also gained support from dozens of individual leaders on issues, including Parkland’s Fred Guttenberg, who emerged as a prominent gun control advocate after his 14-year-old daughter was among seventeen killed in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Crist courts big endorsements
But Crist has aggressively courted support from some of the state’s largest Democratic-leaning organizations, whose get-out-the-vote efforts could pay off in a late summer primary contest when many voters are more concerned with barbecues and back-to-school than casting ballots.
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After she dropped out of the race for governor, state Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami also threw her support to Crist, likely contributing to his growing lead in polls now focused on what is effectively a two-person race to face Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in November.
DeSantis has no primary opponent.
“I continue to be humbled at the support our campaign has received across the Sunshine State,” Crist said Monday, after a new survey by St. Pete Polls showed him with a commanding 25 percentage point lead over Fried.
Each side touts poll results
Crist called his campaign “unstoppable.” Still, Fried only a week ago was touting the campaign’s own survey of 600 likely Democratic primary voters that showed the race a virtual toss-up.
While Crist has been staying away from challenging Fried, touting his support for such popular Democratic topics as Medicaid expansion, more affordable housing, and support for abortion rights, his opponent has turned on him.
Fried has questioned whether Democrats can trust Crist, given his former Republican stripes that once earned him strong support from the National Rifle Association and other conservative powerhouses.
“The Democratic Party wants somebody new,” Fried said. “They’re tired of recycled politicians, especially people that haven’t delivered for Democrats — ever.”
August primaries can be fickle.
Florida’s contests preceding the 2020 presidential election drew a remarkable 28% of voters — the biggest turnout for the state’s primary contests in 18 years. And the 2018 primary was close to that mark, with 27% turnout, when Democrats and Republicans both featured races for governor.
But the five primaries before 2018 saw an average of only about 21% of the electorate voting. This August, it’s hard to tell where turnout will land.
2020 election lends confusion
“The 2020 elections were completely anomalous,” said Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy for the Florida AFL-CIO, which represents 1.6 million members, retirees and their family members.
“We saw Democrats returning more mail-in ballots than Republicans for the first time ever; we saw geographic changes in how people voted,” he said. “It just seems like every single voting trend changed, so I don’t know if anybody really knows what to expect this year.”
Democrats face uphill battle
But Democrats do face some hard facts.
Both Crist and Fried are underfinanced — whoever emerges from the August primary faces an uphill battle against DeSantis, who has raised $124 million for his re-election campaign and beyond, since he is widely viewed as a likely Republican presidential contender in 2024.
Crist had raised $10.2 million, with $6.3 million cash-on-hand by the beginning of June; Fried, had collected $6.9 million with $3.9 million to spend. Both, however, will be airing costly TV ads ahead of the primary, likely sapping whatever money is left.
Fried, however, says national Democratic support is expected once a nominee is chosen.
“They realize that Ron DeSantis may be Florida’s problem in 2022, but if we don’t mount a fight and take him down…he’s going to be the nation’s problem in 2024,” Fried said. “He’s become the boogeyman for Democrats across the country.”
Ben Pollara, a Democratic consultant not involved in either the Crist or Fried campaigns, said it was difficult to gauge whether the candidate endorsements will prove decisive in August — whether they really will turn into large-scale phone-banking, neighborhood canvassing and direct mail that will help the favored candidate.
But Pollara said Crist clearly sought the support of big membership groups. And for now, it looks like he’s succeeded.
“He’s worked it really hard from the beginning,” Pollara said. “His campaign made a decision early on that endorsements are important and they’re trying to get as many as they possibly can."
“You can argue about whether or not they’re important,” he added. “But you can’t argue about the volume that he’s brought in.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport