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What awaits Crist in battle against DeSantis for Florida governor

The November election will test whether Florida remains a purple state, a political science expert said.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist greets supporters after addressing them from the podium at his watch party In the Grand Bay Ballroom of the Hilton St. Pete Bayfront Hotel, 333 1st St SE, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022 in St. Petersburg.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist greets supporters after addressing them from the podium at his watch party In the Grand Bay Ballroom of the Hilton St. Pete Bayfront Hotel, 333 1st St SE, on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 24|Updated Aug. 25

When Gov. Ron DeSantis stumped for Arizona’s Republican candidates at a Phoenix rally last week, some attendees sported T-shirts bearing his name. When a 79-year-old retiree in northeast Wisconsin checked her mailbox recently, a flyer for DeSantis was inside. And supporters living in New York, Pennsylvania, California and other states can buy state-specific mugs bearing the message: “I wish my governor was Ron DeSantis.”

Tuesday evening, Democrats decisively ended a contentious primary for their pick for Florida governor, choosing U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist by a huge margin. Now, the task is to go up against a powerful incumbent who seems to be running not only in Florida but to be the nation’s governor.

“The stakes could not be any higher for this election. Our fundamental freedoms are literally on the ballot, my friends,” Crist told a cheering crowd of supporters during his victory speech in St. Petersburg. “This guy wants to be president of the United States of America and everybody knows it. However, when we defeat him on Nov. 8 that show is over. ... We will send shockwaves across this country.”

To compete with DeSantis, who has already broken state records for his fundraising, Democrats must appeal to a national audience. Crist’s campaign has already sent mailers to potential grassroots donors in other states.

So far, though, Florida Democrats are fighting a perception that the Sunshine State, already a large and expensive state to wage campaigns, has shifted rightward enough to make it a money pit for big national donors.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, right, meets with locals at Kissin’ Cuzzins on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in St. Petersburg. Crist recently won the Democratic primary for Florida Gov.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, right, meets with locals at Kissin’ Cuzzins on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in St. Petersburg. Crist recently won the Democratic primary for Florida Gov. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Some Democrats have remained optimistic that, with the primary over, national Democrats will send in the cavalry. Better fight DeSantis here, this thinking goes, than in a more expensive and expansive run for president in two years. The fundraising successes of U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who’s running to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio, plus the enthusiasm of left-leaning women in the post-Roe midterms, have sparked hope.

One day before his victory, Crist acknowledged that DeSantis has “a gazillion dollars in the bank,” but added: “I do not care and I am not afraid.”

The Democratic Governors Association, one major national fundraising group that contributed millions to Andrew Gillum’s 2018 campaign after the Democratic primary, said it’s confident Florida remains “competitive” and has already made “early six-figure investments” on things like political research in the state.

“By spending all his time on divisive issues and getting national attention for himself, Ron DeSantis has become such a bogeyman that whoever wins the Democratic nomination will instantly be able to tap into an energized grassroots and large donor audience,” Sam Newton, a spokesperson for the group, said in a statement.

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DeSantis, meanwhile, remains unfazed by Democratic broadsides.

Earlier Tuesday, he dismissed both Crist and his primary opponent Nikki Fried, saying after a Cabinet meeting that Fried has “used her time to basically try to smear me on a daily basis,” and as a result he expected her to lose to Crist, who’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.”

But that comment was a rarity. Since campaign season began, DeSantis has hardly mentioned the names of his Democratic opponents — focusing instead on raising his national profile and raking in so much money that the only question, in the mind of his backers, is how big his victory margin will be.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd of supporters during the Keep Florida Free Tour on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022 in Tampa.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd of supporters during the Keep Florida Free Tour on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

A landslide reelection victory, in a state famous for having down-to-the-wire elections, is a top priority of DeSantis’ campaign.

“We need to win a slam dunk election — I’ve said that for a lot of reasons,” said Casey DeSantis during a July appearance at the Moms for Liberty conference in Tampa. Florida’s first lady is well-known as the governor’s most trusted adviser who is closely involved in decisions about her husband’s strategy.

A “sizable” reelection victory would help Gov. DeSantis advance his policy agenda, she said, and would show that “when you have a backbone and spine and you know what you’re doing in your heart to be right, that the people see that.”

Republicans also see the potential for a decisive DeSantis win, coming after a solid 2020 Florida victory by former President Donald Trump, to signal an end to Florida’s legacy as the nation’s largest swing state.

Susan McManus, a retired University of South Florida professor and a veteran observer of state politics, agrees that November will be an important check on how purple Florida is. The number of active registered Republican voters recently surpassed Democrats for the first time in history. The number of no-party-affiliated voters, which often includes many young people, has also continued to increase to about 3.9 million.

“It’s sort of the final test of whether Florida has moved red or not,” McManus said. “One of the things Democrats have to do immediately after the primary is come up with statistics and say (to donors), ‘Look, (2020) was an unusual election. This is different.’”

McManus also said she thinks DeSantis wants to beat Trump’s 3.3 percentage point margin of victory in the state.

Related: DeSantis, Trump show their Republican dominance in Florida amid growing 2024 talk

For many, DeSantis’ campaign has felt like a dress rehearsal for a possible presidential run.

He’s flown across the country holding private fundraisers and speaking at rallies for Republicans running in key swing states. Some of those candidates, including gubernatorial candidates Kari Lake of Arizona and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania, have made false claims that the 2020 election was stolen a centerpiece of their political brands. DeSantis has not.

But in his stump speeches, DeSantis has employed dark imagery to suggest he and his allies are the last lines of defense against a “radical left” seeking to destroy American values.

By contrast, his Florida TV ads have instead been mostly positive. One features voice-overs of letters from constituents, while others include testimonials from Floridians grateful for his pandemic policies, such as opening schools for in-person learning earlier than other states.

Adam Goodman, a longtime Republican media strategist, said there’s no reason for DeSantis to bash his Democratic challenger because it would grant Crist more notoriety when most political headwinds are working in his favor. Instead, DeSantis is smart to focus his messaging on the way people moved to Florida during the pandemic, he said.

“The Florida story is the most compelling part of the reelection, it’s the most unreproachable part of the message, and I think it’s what’s going to carry him to victory in the fall,” Goodman said. “What the challenge is is to take the Florida story and make it something others across the country want to emulate. That is what he’s working on.”

Meanwhile, Crist and the Democrats are planning to counter by portraying DeSantis as a divider who’s focused solely on culture wars and who could push through extreme anti-abortion policies while ignoring pressing issues like housing affordability.

The general election is about “democracy,” said Marianne Humphrey, a 75-year-old Pasco County voter who said she supported Trump in 2016 and DeSantis in 2018 but has since switched to the Democratic Party. She attended the Crist rally Monday.

“We have the right to do with our bodies what we feel is right,” she said. “That’s utmost in my mind. (Republicans are) taking away the rights we’ve had for years.”

Despite his nationwide appearances, DeSantis’ clout, of course, remains strongest within the state, as shown by how some of his endorsed candidates fared in Republican primaries Tuesday night.

Initial results for school board races also showed that of the 30 candidates DeSantis endorsed, the vast majority either won outright or advanced to the general election.

DeSantis is scheduled to appear alongside Rubio at a Tampa event on Wednesday, after the duo both spoke at a Rubio fundraiser in Miami on primary night. At that event, DeSantis told the crowd not to take his reelection for granted.

“Our state is worth fighting for,” he said. “I am calling on all Floridians ... to fight tooth and nail to protect Florida from the destructive agenda of Joe Biden and his number one ally in Florida, Charlie Crist.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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