Charlie Crist soundly defeated Nikki Fried in the Democratic primary for governor on Tuesday, prevailing in what became a bitter campaign to take on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in November.
Crist had 60% of the vote to Fried’s 35%, with 73% of the precincts reporting.
U.S. Rep. Crist, of St. Petersburg, 66, and Agriculture Commissioner Fried, 44, largely agreed on most issues, including addressing the housing and homeowners insurance crises. The both vowed to roll back DeSantis’ culture wars, including the so-called “don’t say gay” law that led to a DeSantis clash with Walt Disney Co.
But they differed dramatically on who would be the best person to oppose the governor.
Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, has repeatedly said Crist was destined to lose to DeSantis if he won the primary, saying at their lone debate, “If we vote for Charlie, we’re going to see Ron DeSantis running for president because he will get another term.”
Crist also is seeking his second term as governor after serving as a Republican from 2007 to 2011. But he faces “an uphill battle” against DeSantis in November, said Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida.
DeSantis is “a very strong Republican governor who’s got his party unified behind him,” Jewett said. “A governor that’s raised record amounts of money. I think he’s already sitting on more than $130 million that’s unspent. And the governor’s popularity seems to be over 50%.”
Democrats haven’t won the governor’s race in 24 years, despite razor-thin defeats to Republican Rick Scott in 2010 and 2014 and to DeSantis in 2018. The state has gotten redder, however, with Republican President Trump winning Florida in 2020 by a bigger margin than he did in 2016.
Democrats also face a tough midterm election cycle with a relatively unpopular Democratic President in Joe Biden, although his numbers have started to creep back up over the past few weeks.
“The Democratic candidate will be the underdog,” Jewett said. “But they can always hope that Democratic voters will be much more motivated for this midterm than maybe some others.”
He said that could happen in part “because of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, and abortion rights being such an important issue this election, and partly because of DeSantis pushing a host of divisive social issues.”
DeSantis’ last major move was to strip power from Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren in part for pledging not to enforce the state’s new 15-week abortion ban. DeSantis has been coy about saying whether he wants the state to go further in restricting abortion access, but on Tuesday he said he would “welcome future endeavors” to limit abortion.
Fried, who adopted the slogan “Something New,” attacked Crist as a former Republican governor and blamed him for conservative picks he made to the state Supreme Court. Crist said this year he regretted two of his selections to the court as governor.
After Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Fried doubled down on reminding Democratic voters of Crist’s past description of himself as “pro-life.”
She ran ads with Crist repeating the phrase and referred to herself as the only abortion rights candidate, despite Crist’s endorsement by state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a former Planned Parenthood official, and others.
Crist responded by saying, if elected, he would protect abortion rights.
Crist fired back at Fried during the debate in July, citing her contribution to Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody, a friend of Fried’s from college. His campaign also highlighted Fried’s 2018 retweet of GOP U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz writing, “Prosecute Hillary Clinton, not medical marijuana businesses and patients.”
He called her attacks on him an act of “desperation” by a candidate who was far behind.
Fried got in hot water late in the campaign for saying she had “heard” without providing evidence that the Sierra Club had paid Palm Beach Post journalists who wrote a critical story about about her efforts to curb the burning of sugar cane fields in South Florida.
Fried received at least $1 million from groups supported by Big Sugar, Florida Power & Light, and dark money committees, while Crist’s donations largely came from labor unions and liberal philanthropists, campaign finance records showed.
After shaking hands with Fried at the end of the state’s Cabinet meeting Tuesday in Tallahassee, DeSantis told reporters she was going to lose the primary.
“I’m not a prognosticator,” DeSantis said. “I don’t want to predict but I think she had an opportunity as the only Democrat elected statewide to exercise some leadership and maybe get some things done. Instead, she used her time to smear me on a daily basis.”
Fried, meanwhile, tweeted a video of her on a bus saying, “Just leaving the Cabinet meeting where Ron DeSantis attacked me before (on Fox News) and after (to the media). He’s scared of me.”
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