Florida Democrats pick Crist to challenge DeSantis

MIAMI — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist won the Democratic nomination for Florida governor on Tuesday, challenging him Governor Ron DeSantis this fall in a campaign that the Republican incumbent sees as a first step toward a potential run for the White House.

In electing Crist, Florida Democrats sided with a candidate supported by many in the party establishment who saw him as the surest choice, even after he lost his previous two elections in the state. The 66-year-old moderate, who was Florida’s Republican governor a decade ago, is hoping to appeal to voters in Florida’s teeming suburbs as Democrats seek to reverse a losing streak in a state that was recently seen as a perennial political battleground of battle.

Above all, the Democratic race has focused on DeSantis, who sees his re-election in November as a potential springboard to the 2024 presidential race. Given the stakes, Democrats across Florida and beyond have expressed a real sense of urgency to blunt DeSantis’ momentum.

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

“Tonight, the people of Florida sent a clear message: They want a governor who cares about them and solves real problems, who protects our freedom, not a bully who divides us and takes away our freedom,” Crist said. “This man wants to be president of the United States of America and everyone knows it. However, when we defeat them on November 8th, this show ends. Enough.”

Read more: How Ron DeSantis Can End Up Dictating Your Children’s Textbooks

Crist won the Democratic nomination over Nikki Fried, state agriculture commissioner. She has championed a more progressive campaign and has been particularly vocal in defending abortion and LGBTQ rights. The 44-year-old presented herself as “something new” and hoped to become Florida’s first female governor. In a sign of the party’s weak position in Florida, she is currently the only Democrat holding statewide office.

“We’re going to make Ronald DeSantis a one-term governor and a zero-term president of the United States,” she conceded Tuesday, urging supporters to rally behind Crist.

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

“We will never surrender to the woke agenda,” DeSantis declared. “Florida is a state where wakes go to die.”

The Republican governor won his first election by less than half a percent, but soon became one of the most prominent figures in Republican Party politics. His even-handed approach to the pandemic and his eagerness to bridge divisions over race, gender and LGBTQ rights resonated with many Republican voters who see DeSantis as a natural successor to former President Donald Trump.

The Florida race caps the busiest stretch of this year’s primaries, which featured races in 18 states in just 22 days. In that period, Republicans from Arizona to Alaska supported challengers who embraced Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen, a claim strongly rejected by election officials, the former president’s attorney general and his appointed judges.

And for the most part, Democrats avoid brutal primary battles — with some exceptions.

New York Democrats on Tuesday picked Jerry Nadler over Carolyn Maloney in a congressional primary that featured two powerful House committee chairmen vying for the same seat. North of town, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the Democratic congressional campaign manager, won a tough primary battle against a more progressive state senator.

Republican Gov. Acting Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022, in Hialeah, Florida.

AP Photo/Gaston de Cárdenas

Democrats are entering the final weeks before the midterm elections with a sense of cautious optimism, hoping that a Supreme Court ruling overturning a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion will energize the party base. But Democrats still face huge headwinds, including economic uncertainty and the historical reality that most parties lose seats in the first midterm after winning the White House.

The dynamic is particularly challenging for Democrats in Florida, one of the most politically divided states in the US. His last three gubernatorial races were decided by 1 percentage point or less. But the state has steadily become more Republican-friendly in recent years.

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. Freed serves as the only Democrat statewide. And Republicans have no primary competition for four of those five positions — governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and chief financial officer — all of which are held by GOP incumbents.

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

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

Demings was upbeat as he reflected on his incredible life story in front of a crowd of cheering supporters.

“Together I really believe this daughter of a maid and a porter who shouldn’t be standing here tonight – I really believe that together we can do anything,” she said.

In Florida’s gubernatorial race, the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion has come to life in the final weeks of the Democratic primary.

Fried has touted himself as the only genuine abortion rights supporter in the race, capitalizing on Crist’s appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices while he was governor.

Read more: What Florida’s Stop Wake Act Means for Schools and Businesses

The conservative-leaning court will soon decide whether the Republican-backed state legislature’s law banning 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, prevent serious injury, or if the fetus has a fatal abnormality. It does not allow exceptions in cases of rape, incest or human trafficking.

Crist vowed Tuesday night to make abortion rights a priority.

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

Elsewhere in Florida, Trump protégé Congressman Matt Goetz won the Republican primary in his Florida Panhandle district despite being under federal investigation in a sex-trafficking case. Goetz is heavily favored to win a fourth term in November.

Florida is not expected to be among the most competitive states this fall given its shift to the right, but it may be the most expensive.

Crist has raised $14 million so far this election cycle, nearly twice as much as Fried. But he’s up against a fundraising giant. DeSantis’ political operation has already raised more than $165 million since he took office, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He is on pace to break the record for the most money ever raised by a gubernatorial candidate.

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

Peoples reports from Washington, D.C. Farrington of Tallahassee. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Kurt Anderson in St. Petersburg and Mark Levy in Pittsburgh contributed to this report

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