Florida Democrats Choose Crist to Challenge DeSantis

MIAMI — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist won the Democratic nomination for governor in Florida on Tuesday, setting him up to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis won this fall the Democratic nomination for governor in Florida, which the Republican incumbent views as the first step towards a possible White House run.

In selecting Crist, Florida Democrats sided with a candidate backed by many in the party’s establishment who viewed him as the safest choice, even after he lost his previous two statewide elections. The 66-year-old moderate, who served as Florida’s Republican governor a decade ago, hopes to appeal to voters in Florida’s teeming suburbs as Democrats seek to reverse a losing pattern in a state that was recently seen as a perennial political battleground.

DeSantis viewed his November election as an opportunity to jumpstart the 2024 presidential race. Given the stakes, Democrats across Florida and beyond expressed a real sense of urgency to blunt DeSantis’ momentum.

Crist decried DeSantis as an “abusive” and “dangerous” “bully” in his victory speech.

“Tonight, the people of Florida clearly sent a message: They want a governor who cares about them and solves real problems, preserves our freedom, not a bully who divides us and takes our freedom away,” Crist declared. “This guy wants to be president of the United States of America and everybody knows it. But, they will be defeated on November 8th. Enough.”

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Crist beat Nikki Fried who was the state’s agriculture commissioner, to win the Democratic nomination. Crist fought for a progressive platform and was vocal about defending the rights of abortion and LGBTQ. The 44-year-old cast herself as “something new” and hoped to become Florida’s first female governor. In a sign of the party’s meager standing in Florida, she’s currently the only Democrat holding statewide office.

“We are going to make Ronald DeSantis a one-term governor and a zero-term president of the United States,” she said as she conceded Tuesday, calling on her supporters to come together to support Crist.

Not far away in a raucous ballroom in Miami, DeSantis declined to say Crist’s name and instead cast the general election as contest against President Joe Biden and “woke” ideology.

“We will never ever surrender to the woke agenda,” DeSantis charged. “Florida is a state where woke goes to die.”

Although he won his first election only by half a percentage point, he soon rose to be one of the most important figures in GOP politics. Republican voters love DeSantis’s approach to the pandemic as well as his willingness to delve into issues over race, gender, or LGBTQ rights.

With contests taking place in just 22 days, the Florida primary is now over. It was also the longest stretch of primaries this season. In that span, Republicans from Arizona to Alaska have supported contenders who embraced Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen, an assertion roundly rejected by elections officials, the former president’s attorney general and judges he appointed.

And for the most part, Democrats have avoided brutal primary fights — with some exceptions.

New York City Democrats voted Tuesday for Jerry Nadler instead of Carolyn Maloney. The primary featured two influential House Committee chairs competing to win the same seat. To the north of the city, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the Democratic Party’s congressional campaign chief, won a tough primary fight against a more progressive state senator.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Tuesday, August 23, 2022 to his supporters in Hialeah (Fla.).

AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas

Democrats are entering the final weeks ahead of the midterms with a sense of cautious optimism, hoping the Supreme Court’s decision overturning a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion will energize the party’s base. But Democrats still face tremendous headwinds, including economic uncertainty and the historic reality that most parties lose seats in the first midterm after they’ve won the White House.

This is especially difficult for Democrats in Florida. Florida is one of the most divided states in America. The last three elections for Florida governor were won by 1 percentage point. In recent years, however, Florida has been steadily becoming more friendly to Republicans.

For the first time in modern history, Florida has more registered Republicans — nearly 5.2 million — than Democrats, who have nearly 5 million registered voters. Fried is the only Democrat elected to statewide office. And Republicans have no primary competition for four of those five positions – governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and chief financial officer — which are all held by GOP incumbents.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings was able to easily win the Democratic nomination and challenge Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Demings, a former police chief and a prodigious political fundraiser, has a chance to become Florida’s first Black female senator.

While some Democrats are hopeful that Demings can unseat Rubio, the party’s national leadership is prioritizing competitive Senate contests in other states, including neighboring Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Demings was positive as she shared her story of an unlikely life before cheering fans.

“Together, I really do believe this daughter of a maid and janitor who is not supposed to be standing here tonight — I really do believe that together we can do anything,” she said.

In Florida’s governor’s race, the Supreme Court’s abortion decision animated the final weeks of the Democratic primary.

Fried promoted herself as the only true abortion-rights supporter in the race, seizing on Crist’s appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices while he was governor.

Learn More What Florida’s Stop Woke Act Means for Schools and Businesses

The conservative-leaning court will soon decide whether the Republican-backed state legislature’s law to ban abortions after 15 weeks is constitutional. Florida’s new abortion law is in effect, with exceptions if the procedure is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life, to prevent serious injury or if the fetus has a fatal abnormality. The law does not permit exemptions in the cases of human trafficking, incest and rape.

Crist pledged Tuesday night that abortion rights would be a top priority.

“On Day One of my administration, I will sign an executive order protecting a woman’s right to choose,” he said.

Elsewhere in Florida, Trump protégé Rep. Matt Gaetz won his Republican primary in his Florida Panhandle district despite being under federal investigation in a sex trafficking case. Gaetz is strongly favored for a fourth term.

Florida will not be one of the most competitive states in the fall due to its rightward shifting, but it could be the most costly.

Crist has raised nearly twice the amount of Fried this cycle with $14 million in fundraising. But he’s going up against a fundraising behemoth. DeSantis’ political operation has already raised more than $165 million since he took office, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s on pace to shatter the record for the most money ever raised by a candidate for governor.

“Don’t let anyone tell you it’s going to be easy. Over the next two and a half months, they’re gonna throw everything they have at us,” DeSantis said. He added, “I got elected less than four years ago, but we’re just getting warmed up.”

Reporting from Washington was done by Peoples, Farrington came from Tallahassee. This report was contributed by Marc Levy and Curt Anderson, all Associated Press reporters from St. Petersburg.


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