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Democrats face first test in bid to defeat DeSantis

The Florida primary vote offers a lens into Democrats’ strategy against a rising star of the Republican Party

Democrat Nikki Fried, the state's agricultural commissioner and a candidate for governor, protests the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade on June 24 in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

MIAMI — Nikki Fried believes this should be her year to advance to a one-on-one battle against Florida’s ambitious governor, Republican Ron DeSantis.

Her pitch: Democrats need to motivate voters with a fiery liberal message — protecting abortion rights, legalizing marijuana and capping skyrocketing rent prices — if the nominee stands a chance against DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential contender trying to position himself as the next leader of the nation’s conservative movement.

But at a campaign event last week in her hometown, Fried, 44, wandered along a sea wall in Miami for about 15 minutes waiting for a crowd to show up.

“This election is the most important election of our generation,” she told two dozen supporters and family members who eventually gathered, urging them to help turn the tide of her campaign. “Not just the general election, but also this primary.”

Less than one week from the Aug. 23 election, Fried finds herself locked in an increasingly nasty and often lonely contest with former governor and Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) over who is the most electable candidate against DeSantis — a race that could offer a window into how Democrats might approach a run against him in 2024.

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Most political analysts say Crist has a lead, with high-profile Democratic politicians, several major unions and the editorial boards of most of Florida’s largest newspapers lining up to endorse him. His backers contend his background as a onetime moderate Republican and affable, consensus-driven style will draw in voters turned off by DeSantis’s often aggressive brand of politics centered on fanning the nation’s culture wars.

The race has highlighted simmering fissures within the Florida Democratic Party and on the political left more broadly that could carry over into the general election campaign. Whereas the Fried camp says a candidate with solid liberal credentials is the best way to energize the base, Crist’s supporters contend the only way to win against DeSantis is to find someone who will draw voters from the center of the aisle.

If elected, Fried would become Florida’s first female governor and the first Democrat to hold the office in more than two decades. But in an especially painful blow to Fried, several influential women’s rights organizations have decided to stay neutral in the primary.

“I have known a lot of these people for a while, and I think that is part of it,” Crist, 66, said in an interview. “There is familiarity, and trust and relationships that matter honed over a decent period of time, and that makes a difference.”

But some are worried that Crist’s shift from Republican to Democrat years ago could make him highly vulnerable to attacks from DeSantis — and that the disaffected Republican voters Democrats are hoping to win over would ultimately be more drawn to Fried. In recent days, polls have shown that the gap between Crist and Fried is starting to narrow.

“To the extent those Republicans even exist, they tend to be college-educated women, and I think Nikki Fried may have more appeal with them,” said Brad Coker, director of Florida-based Mason Dixon Polling & Strategy. “There are not any White male Republican voters who are going to vote for Crist over DeSantis — these voters don’t exist.”

After serving as the nation’s premier swing state throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Florida has drifted to the right in recent years — underscoring the ongoing challenges Democrats face in winning back the Sunshine State.

Despite being a good year for Democrats nationally, Florida Democrats have stumbled in recent state and federal elections. Former Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, who was vying to become the state’s first Black governor, lost to DeSantis in 2018 by 32,000 votes — about half a percentage point. Two years later, amid declining support for Democrats in Miami’s Cuban American community, former Republican president Donald Trump comfortably won Florida, even as Joe Biden captured neighboring Georgia.

Since then, Democrats’ woes here continue to deepen in a state that remains key in a presidential election. Florida Republicans eclipsed Democrats in registered voters last year for the first time in history. The GOP advantage has continued to grow this year, with there now being 200,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the state.

Florida also has more than 3.8 million voters who are not affiliated with either party, and those voters have historically decided statewide contests.

“My intuition tells me there are a lot of disaffected Republicans who may play the game in their conservative circles, and talk about how much they love DeSantis … but when they go into the ballot box, they will be looking for alternatives,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D), who represents part of the Orlando area and is leading for gay rights in the state. “Charlie seems to be the candidate that gives them a viable alternative.”

After serving as the state’s attorney general, Crist, then a Republican, was elected Florida governor in 2006. During his term in his office, Crist navigated the state through the mortgage crisis, expanded access to health insurance and carved out new protections for the Everglades. But Crist also outraged conservatives when he hugged Barack Obama at an event in 2009 to tout the president’s economic stimulus package.

Crist bucked seeking a second term as governor, instead deciding to run for U.S. Senate — as an independent. Polls at the time showed him trailing now-Sen. Marco Rubio (R) by the double digits. Many at the time dismissed his party switching as a political ploy. Two years later, Crist became a Democrat and campaigned for Obama’s reelection.

He ran for governor again in 2014 as a Democrat but was defeated by Rick Scott, a Republican who now serves in the U.S. Senate. In 2016, he won a seat in the U.S. House, where he has become a reliable vote for the Democratic Party’s agenda. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has endorsed his campaign for governor.

These days he touts his experience in both parties as an attribute that will allow him to build a broad, diverse coalition. On the campaign trail, Crist vows to be a “governor for all Floridians,” arguing DeSantis has polarized one of the most diverse states in the nation.

“Most of the people who are going to vote in this Democratic primary, they are already aware that I was a Republican,” Crist said. “And I have had a very good relationship subsequent to that with President Obama, and certainly President Biden, and the Speaker of the House, so that is really old news.”

Last week, at the Florida League of Cities conference in Hallandale Beach, Crist showed up at a reception honoring Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, whose parents emigrated from Haiti. The former governor slapped backs and stood for nearly an hour posing for pictures, as a torcedor handed out cigars on an oceanfront patio.

“If you have a proven track record, I go with you,” said Woodrow Hay, a city commissioner who is Black and noted that Crist also recently showed up at his church to ask for support. “I didn’t support everything he did the last time he was governor, but for the most part I did.”

Several Democrats compared the choice to the decision faced in 2020, when they were desperate to defeat Trump.

“My decision to support Charlie was very much in the same way that I came to support President Biden” in 2020, said state Sen. Lori Berman (D), who represents parts of Palm Beach County. “I felt he was the candidate who can defeat Donald Trump, and I feel the same way about Charlie. I feel he is the best candidate to defeat Ron DeSantis.”

The Fried campaign, outspent by Crist, says they can still defeat Crist in the primary by rallying a diverse coalition of left-leaning Democrats to the polls.

Kevin Cate, a senior adviser to the Fried campaign, said Fried is gaining momentum in the race just as many voters are starting to pay attention. He compared Fried’s effort to Gillum’s success four years ago in pulling off a surprise victory in the Democratic primary for governor, after he also ran to the left of the other candidates in that race.

“I think as we get closer, and people are tuned in, they are going to go with the grass-roots kind of feel and they will want something new,” said Cate, who also helped oversee Gillum’s 2018 campaign.

Samantha Hope Herring, a member of the Democratic National Committee and chair of the Democratic committee in Walton County, located along the state’s Emerald Coast in the Panhandle, added she also believes Fried’s campaign has taken on new momentum after the fall of Roe v. Wade.

“We’ve already done Charlie Crist. We already lost with Charlie Crist,” said Herring, who recently decided to support Fried. “There is little risk in going in another direction, especially in a year when women’s rights are literally on the ballot.”

To help build her case, Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, has been hammering Crist over some of his previous support for conservative policies. In one video clip, Crist states he is “pro-life” and supports “traditional marriage,” an apparent reference to the debate over same-sex marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized it in 2015.

In other television ads, Fried blasts Crist for appointing conservatives to the state Supreme Court and pursuing policies as governor that included mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

“Want to know the difference between me and Charlie Crist?” Fried asks in one ad, as she is walking in front of a prison. “While I was a public defender, fighting to keep innocent Floridians out of jails like this, he was passing mandatory minimums during the racist war on drugs.”

In an interview, Crist defended his record on abortion, saying he previously used the term “pro-life” but never supported outlawing abortion. He also argued that he had appointed both conservative and moderate justices to the state Supreme Court.

“Everybody has their own definitions of words,” said Crist, noting that as governor he vetoed a bill in 2010 that would require women to receive an ultrasound before having an abortion. “So I kind of had fun using it, and using my own definition of it, which meant, ‘for life.’ ” He has promised to immediately sign an executive order protecting reproductive freedom rights if elected.

Coker, of Mason Dixon Polling & Strategy, says DeSantis will quickly overwhelm Crist with negative television ads labeling him as being an inconsistent, “flip flopper.”

“Crist is going to be a big, fat, slow pitch over the plate for DeSantis whereas Nikki Fried is a bit more of a curveball,” he said.

In recent weeks, Crist supporters have also been highlighting some of Fried’s own connections to GOP politicians — including donations to several Republican candidates over the years. In a mailer, the Crist campaign has highlighted Fried’s past cordial relationship with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a staunch conservative who has close ties to Trump and has aligned himself in the past with Proud Boys and Holocaust deniers.

Fried said both her support for Diaz and past friendly ties to Gaetz, a former state legislator, related to her work as a lobbyist in Tallahassee, the state capital.

“I was doing my job and building relationships across the aisle,” said Fried, who added that she believes Crist’s mailer is “sexist” because it stated she had a “close friendship” with Gaetz. She says the party establishment’s decision to back Crist as the more “electable” candidate also has sexist connotations.

“I have never heard a man asked if he’s electable,” she said. “It is only ever on women, and minorities, if they are electable.”

Crist said Fried’s charges of sexism do not even merit a response. “I don’t even understand what that means,” Crist said when asked about her assertions. “There is no basis for that, so I think that is all it deserves from me.”

State Sen. Shevrin D. Jones, a Democrat who support Crist and is influential in the Black community in South Florida, said he wishes Fried’s more aggressive style of campaigning had emerged months ago, noting that tens of thousands of Florida Democrats have already voted by mail.

Jones said he and other Florida Democratic leaders decided in the spring to endorse Crist because Fried’s campaign appeared lackluster and didn’t have a cohesive message. At the time, party leaders were watching DeSantis ram controversial legislation through the state House and decided they need to unite behind a candidate who could rise to the challenge of taking him on.

“We had to find someone,” Jones said of Crist. “I think if [Fried] had this energy six or eight months ago, a lot more people would have been on her side. But she just took too long to pull the trigger on her message.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

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Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.