ST. PETERSBURG — In the latest twist of U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s 30-year political career, Democratic voters have asked him to slay a rising Republican giant.
Crist on Tuesday coasted to victory in the Democratic primary for governor over Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — the only statewide elected member of his party.
The race, which some expected to be close, was a blowout. Crist led Fried by tens of thousands of votes after the largest counties recorded their preliminary vote-by-mail and early voting results, and he never looked back. The Associated Press called the race at 8 p.m., shortly after polls closed in the Florida Panhandle. At that time, Crist led Fried by 25 percentage points.
“Tonight, the people of Florida clearly sent a message. They want a governor who cares about them,” Crist told supporters attending his election night watch party at the Bayfront Hilton in St. Petersburg.
Now Crist will face Gov. Ron DeSantis in a matchup of Florida’s former governor with its current one. Crist was also the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014, when he lost to Republican Rick Scott.
Speaking from her watch party in Fort Lauderdale, Fried offered her congratulations to her victorious opponent. She said it was time for the Democratic Party to unify.
“We are going to make Ron DeSantis a one-term governor and a zero-term president of the United States,” Fried said.
The Democratic primary was set in the late spring of 2021, when both Crist and Fried announced they would seek Florida’s highest office.
From the outset, Fried, 44, tried to convince voters she would bring novelty to Democratic politics. She made her campaign slogan “something new” — a not-so-subtle allusion to the long political track record of her 66-year-old opponent.
But in many ways, the primary was Crist’s to lose. Nearly every major newspaper editorial board recommended that voters pick him. He netted endorsements from dozens of Democratic leaders across the state. And between campaign accounts and political committees, Crist out-fundraised Fried by more than 2-to-1.
Throughout the nearly 15-month race, Fried and Crist tried to talk about problems they believe are going unaddressed in Republican-controlled Tallahassee. Each touted a plan for affordable housing across the state. In response to deadly mass shootings, each called for lawmakers to pass gun control legislation.
Perhaps the defining moment of the primary came this summer when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Fried seized on the abortion issue, arguing Crist was not to be trusted to protect a woman’s right to choose. She pointed to Crist’s record of appointing conservative judges to the Florida Supreme Court and the way his definition of the phrase “pro-life” seemed to change over time.
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In the end, however, Crist seems to have convinced enough voters he is the man to take on the challenge of protecting abortion access in Florida. He pledged to sign an executive order on the first day of his gubernatorial administration directing state agencies not to “interrupt any woman’s right to choose.” He pledged not to allow his agencies to cooperate with any criminal investigations into people looking to obtain abortions.
Crist was perhaps buoyed by negative news coverage of the Fried campaign’s ties to the state’s influential sugar and utility industries. In the last week of reported campaign fundraising, Fried got $100,000 from a political committee that’s gotten at least $372,500 in contributions from sugar companies and Florida Power & Light.
But as loudly or frequently as they clashed over issues, Fried and Crist often had their messages drowned out by the contentious policy proclamations and seemingly never-ending controversies generated by DeSantis. For example, DeSantis called a Cabinet meeting in Tallahassee the morning of the primary, drawing Fried away from the campaign trail.
DeSantis told reporters outside that meeting he expected Crist to win despite what he said were Crist’s limitations as a candidate.
The governor described Crist as “a guy that’s been running for office for five decades, who is voting with Biden 100% of the time and doesn’t even show up for the job.”
Crist has raised just a fraction of the $135 million DeSantis will have at his disposal headed into the Nov. 8 general election.
But Crist told his victory party he is up to the challenge of taking on DeSantis.
“This is a special night. What happened here was not a mistake,” Crist said. “And what happens Nov. 8 won’t be a mistake either.”
Times/Herald Tallahassee staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Bianca Padró Ocasio contributed to this report.
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