After sweeping primary win, Crist faces a tougher target in toppling DeSantis
TALLAHASSEE — After a thorough thumping of primary rival Nikki Fried, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist quickly trained his focus Wednesday on a vastly tougher target: Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“The plan is to win. I think we’re going to beat this guy, I really do,” Crist said outside a St. Petersburg diner, making his first campaign stop of what is certain to be a free-swinging battle with DeSantis leading to the November election.
Crist acknowledged a mismatch with fundraising — DeSantis is sitting on more than $130 million, while the Democrat’s account was virtually emptied by the primary. But running his seventh statewide race — with a 3-3 won-loss record, so far — Crist said Floridians know him.
“Floridians know they can trust me, because I will not let you down,” Crist said, contrasting himself with the tough-edged political style of DeSantis.
Crist sharpened the contrast by adding that he's not looking to convert those who back he culture war politics advanced by DeSantis.
"Those who support the governor should stay with him and vote for him and I don't want your vote," Crist said. "If you have that hate in your heart, keep it there. I want the vote of the people of Florida who care about our state."
Crist is making his second run for governor as a Democrat, having lost to Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2014 by 64,145 votes, a 1% margin.
Floridians’ familiarity with Crist certainly helped him in his contest with Fried, who he beat by 25% in capturing almost 60% of the Democratic primary vote. Fried, who is agriculture commissioner and the Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, lost 64 of the state’s 67 counties to Crist, leading him only in Alachua, Bay and Walton counties.
Crist ran up huge margins in the state’s biggest Democratic counties, including 30% victories over Fried in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
All told, 30% of Florida Democrats voted in the governor’s primary, better than the 26% overall turnout in Tuesday’s elections.
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But Crist faces tougher numbers heading toward November.
Almost out of campaign cash, the nominee is going to need a big injection of dollars from national Democrats, including the Democratic Governors Association, which started airing its first TV spot Wednesday attacking "radical Ron DeSantis."
An ominous tide for Democrats
Crist also said that he expected President Biden to campaign for him.
"I need his help. I want his help. He’s the best I’ve ever met," Crist said in a CNN interview.
Crist, though, faces an ominous political tide.
Florida hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in 28 years. And last year, the number of Floridians who register as Republican voters overtook Democrats for the first time in modern state history, and that toll is rising.
Currently, there are 230,915 more Republican registered voters than Democrats in Florida, a sizable chunk in a state known for close elections. DeSantis was elected in 2018 by less than 33,000 votes in the closest governor’s race in Florida history.
But more than one-in-four Florida voters are registered as unaffiliated with either party. And whichever way these independents swing in November will be decisive in determining the state’s next governor.
DeSantis, who faced no primary opposition, wasn’t letting Democrats command the state’s political stage during the primary. He kicked off a two-day, “Keep Florida Free” tour in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, predicting the “biggest Republican turnout this state has ever seen” in November.
“Don’t take any of this freedom for granted,” DeSantis told supporters. “You’ve got to fight for it.”
“We need to win across the board in November, to make sure that we solidify this state as the nation’s citadel of freedom,” he added.
DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running for re-election against Democrat Val Demings, campaigned together. They were scheduled to make stops Wednesday in Seminole, Duval, and Hillsborough counties.
In Seminole County, the pair were the star attractions at a general election campaign kickoff event at Horsepower Ranch, a sprawling rural entertainment venue.
“Aren’t you happy to live in a free state?” DeSantis said, eliciting a roar of approval. “Are you going to come out in November so we can keep it that way?”
Under a sweltering sun in 90-plus-degree temperatures, an enthusiastic throng jammed together beneath a shaded canopy to support the governor, Rubio and an array of other Republican candidates who offered rousing appeals looking ahead to the general election.
DeSantis approval only middling
DeSantis, while polarizing, is widely seen as having strengthened his appeal over the past four years among Republicans with his muscle-flexing style and backing of expanded parental rights and restrictions on LGBTQ policies in schools, attacks on corporate ‘woke culture,’ and persistent opposition to the Biden administration on immigration and COVID-19 safeguards.
A potential White House contender in two years, DeSantis’ has developed a national following on the right and campaigned this month for U.S. Senate Republicans in several states.
His combative approach, reminiscent of his political mentor, former President Donald Trump, works with Republicans. But DeSantis’ approval ratings, though, remain middling — around 50%, perhaps giving Crist an opportunity despite tough odds.
Even Crist on Wednesday acknowledged he’s in a minority when he predicts a victory over DeSantis.
“I know nobody else thinks so, but I know so. Because I know Florida, and I know that she’s heartbroken by how he’s tried to tear her apart,” Crist said.
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Fried had run hard at Crist, attempting to raise doubts about his commitment to protecting abortion rights. But her claims didn’t seem to stick to Crist.
As a former Republican governor, education commissioner, attorney general and state senator, Crist had cast himself as “pro-life.” But he vetoed what was viewed as an abortion restriction as governor and earned top ratings from abortion rights advocacy organizations during his three terms as a congressional Democrat from St. Petersburg.
The Florida Planned Parenthood PAC, which had stayed out of the Democratic primary for governor, announced its endorsement Wednesday of Crist for the fall campaign.
The effort to protect access to abortion, under fire since a June, U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned constitutional safeguards, is seen as motivating many voters this year and marks a real dividing line between Crist and DeSantis.
DeSantis, who enacted a new law in July that limits abortions in Florida to the first 15 weeks of pregnancy — with no exception for rape or incest — has said he will “work to expand pro-life protections” going forward.
But the governor has refused to say what he may propose, instead saying he is awaiting the outcome of ongoing court challenges to the 15-week law.
In a new social media ad the Crist campaign began posting Wednesday, he repeats his defense of abortion rights, expanded voter access, helping consumers with housing and utility costs and support for Black, LGBTQ Floridians and women who he said have been subjugated under DeSantis.
“For him, politics is all about power. Resentment. He wins, you lose,” Crist says in the spot.
Contributing: Daytona Beach News-Journal reporter Jim Abbott
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport