On a muggy afternoon about an hour’s drive from the state Capitol, roughly three-dozen supporters fought off the heat and insects as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist made his pitch this week before Tuesday’s primary election.
Crist, a St. Petersburg congressman, squeezed in the visit to Madison County between campaign stops in Jacksonville and Tallahassee as he crisscrosses the state in a bid to move back into the governor’s mansion after more than a decade-long hiatus.
Crist is squaring off against Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in the Democratic primary in an increasingly brutal contest.
Crist’s stump speech in Madison echoed what’s been a recurring theme throughout a year-long campaign largely focused on another foe: Gov. Ron DeSantis. Crist drove home the message that he is the candidate with the best shot at ousting the Republican governor, who’s skyrocketed to national fame and is a potential contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.
“Our current governor is tearing our state apart,” Crist, 66, said in a rural county where Democrats edge out Republicans among a total of 12,117 registered voters.
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Crist repeatedly jabbed at DeSantis on issues such as voting rights, hammering the governor for supporting legislation that makes it harder for Floridians to vote by mail.
A charismatic populist, Crist also trotted out a campaign playlist that put on display the earnestness that endeared him to a generation of voters who boosted him to victory in three statewide elections as a Republican before he became an independent and then a Democrat. One of those elections was his victory in the 2006 gubernatorial race.
“There’s faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. And this election is all about love, it really is, and unfortunately, a lot about hate. … I love Florida with all my heart, and all of you with all my heart. And I can’t stand to see the current governor separate white from Black, gay from straight, young from old, short from tall. For crying out loud, it’s ridiculous,” said Crist, standing in front of a gazebo in a downtown Madison park. “What governor of Florida attacks Mickey Mouse? I mean, come on. Are you kidding me? It would be funny but it’s not a joke. That’s what he’s done.”
Crist, who was referring to a clash between DeSantis and Walt Disney Co. over a law that critics dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill, also displayed the easygoing persona he has burnished during the more three decades in politics.
But while he’s widely viewed as one of the state’s most skilled retail politicians, Crist’s switching of parties and legacy of runs for office — the 2022 governor’s race is his seventh statewide effort — also expose a vulnerability that critics such as Fried are eager to exploit.
As he reaches out to Democrats in the run-up to the primary, Crist continues to assert that he’ll be the candidate who’s most attractive to voters of both parties in the general election against DeSantis.
Crist told voters in Madison that “there’s still some good Republicans out there” who will cross party lines and vote for him in November.
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But Fried has repeatedly bashed Crist for appointing conservative justices to the Florida Supreme Court while governor and for evolving views on such issues as abortion and gun rights.
“You have a choice. We can keep losing,” Fried said, pointing at Crist during a July debate, “or we can try something new. … We have to try something new. I’m the only (current) statewide-elected Democrat, the only one to have won our state since Barack Obama in 2012.”
In this year’s race, Crist has emphasized that he wants voters to judge him on who he is “today” and stressed that he has a 100 percent congressional approval rating from such pro-choice organizations as Planned Parenthood.
As it is for Fried, abortion is one of the top issues for Crist. But defeating DeSantis remains the cornerstone of his campaign.
Accompanied by his fiancee, Chelsea Grimes, and three of her six children on Monday in Madison, Crist said DeSantis repeatedly “talks about how we’re the freest state” in the country.
“Boy, is he dead wrong. And he’s the one who’s making it unfree because it sure ain’t free if you’re a woman, if you value your right to choose,” Crist said, pointing to a law signed by DeSantis this spring that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The law does not include exceptions for rape or incest, which Crist called “barbaric.”
Crist touts the backing of labor groups such as the Florida AFL-CIO and the Florida Education Association, along with progressive legislators including Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando.
Eskamani in a recent interview called her support for Crist “very policy-centric,” rattling off a series of issues — the environment, utility rates, tax policy and solar energy — where she said the former Republican’s views are in alignment with hers.
And when asked, she also predicted that Crist would prove a tougher opponent when matched up against DeSantis.
“His ability to take down DeSantis, I just see that path as more realistic,” Eskamani said.
Crist, an attorney who also served in the state Senate, was elected in 2000 as education commissioner and 2002 as attorney general before getting elected governor. Education commissioner subsequently became an appointed post.
Crist did not seek a second term as governor in 2010, instead leaving the Republican Party and launching an independent bid for a U.S. Senate seat. Crist lost the race to Republican Marco Rubio and briefly was sidelined politically.
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Crist became the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014 but lost to Republican Gov. Rick Scott before getting elected to the Pinellas County congressional seat.
As Fried tries to parlay Crist’s Republican past into a victory for her, some experts believe that the candidate best situated to defeat DeSantis will be top of voters’ minds as they cast ballots in the primary.
“In some sense Crist’s disadvantage is, as a former Republican, there may be some distrust after his policy positions,” Florida Atlantic University political-science professor Kevin Wagner said in a recent phone interview. “However, Democrats have been out of power for so long in the state, I think they’re a little less worried about the nuances of policy and a little more concerned about having to win at least one race in the last 20 years or so.”
Fried, meanwhile, could have a better chance of exciting the Democratic base, and “many elections are base elections these days,” Wagner noted.
Edgar Burch, one of the people who attended the Madison event, said he’s backing Crist in the primary — because of DeSantis.
“He needs to go. We need to get him out of there. Lock him up,” Burch said, chuckling.
In a brief interview between selfies with voters in Madison, The News Service of Florida asked Crist why he believes he can flip a string of Democratic statewide election flops. Crist said “several things” are different now.
Crist first pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the historic Roe v. Wade abortion-rights decision. Crist then shifted his attention to DeSantis, noting that the governor recently suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren, a Democrat, from office. DeSantis’ rationale for the ouster rested, in part, on Warren saying he would not pursue prosecutions for violations of Florida’s new 15-week abortion restriction.
Crist called DeSantis’ actions “outrageous.”
“Just abuse of power. Floridians are sick of it. He’s trying to be the boss of Florida, or whatever you want to call it, the king of Florida. Florida doesn’t want that. Florida wants a public servant who understands that he or she works for them, not the other way around,” he said.