Charlie Crist’s third run for governor will test his penchant for reinvention. The former class president at St. Petersburg High School made it official Tuesday, declaring his bid for the Democratic nomination to an office he formerly held as a Republican. Florida is a very different state from the one that Crist took over as governor 14 years ago. His candidacy will measure the public’s appetite for second acts, the appeal of a centrist message and the direction of Florida Democrats in an increasingly partisan age.
Crist announced his candidacy for the 2022 election on a stunningly sunny spring morning in St. Petersburg. He had teased the event last week, promising “a major announcement in my hometown of St. Pete” and tweeting a photo of himself “getting ready” over the weekend in what looked like a run-through of prepared remarks at a lectern. This was Crist at his best, warm and engaging in campaign mode, seemingly immune to forgetting a name and jazzed with people-power.
That positive energy has helped Crist enormously over the years, as he’s bounced from Republican to independent to Democrat in search of opportunity. The former state senator, education commissioner, attorney general and 44th governor, who now represents St. Petersburg in Congress, is circling back toward a political arc that capped his elected career. In recent days, running up to Tuesday’s announcement, Crist has sharpened his criticism of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature, faulting lawmakers for a host of wrongheaded and controversial measures, from new curbs on mail voting to restrictions on transgender participation in scholastic sports.
But is a 64-year-old man who blazed to notoriety in Republican politics for being tough-on-crime, earning him the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie,” the right standard-bearer for a party turning leftward in the Black Lives Matter era? Crist will undoubtedly tout his bona fides on civil rights, consumer protection and the environment. But are Democrats looking for a younger candidate, a woman, someone of color, or someone whose political positions are more consistently aligned and progressive?
To supporters, Crist offers Democrats a way out of the wilderness. He is a tireless campaigner, adept and comfortable at raising money, with strong name recognition in Florida’s expensive media market. Crist’s skills as a retail politician evoke a simpler age, and his innate civility could warm independents and some moderate Republicans alike. But Crist will have to win the Democratic nomination to test his bipartisan appeal. And that primary will likely be crowded and tough. The only Democrat elected to statewide office, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, has been preparing for months to challenge DeSantis. Some activists are also encouraging U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who made history as Orlando’s first female chief of police. She, like Crist, has a background on criminal justice that could help inoculate Democrats on a hot-button issue.
Crist, as any other challenger, though, will need to map out a vision for Florida that DeSantis cannot match. Hitting the governor for his handling of the pandemic is one thing, as is criticizing the Legislature for its red-meat agenda. But Crist will need something further — on jobs, education, transportation and the environment — to convince voters he has a better plan for Florida. As the first major Democrat in the race, Crist has an advantage in setting the party’s set of priorities. And he can start framing what’s possible in his own terms. The candidacy of the hometown Crist also provides Tampa Bay the opportunity to put its own interests higher on the state’s political radar.
But make no mistake: Any Democrat — including Crist — faces a difficult task in unseating DeSantis. The first-term governor is consistently conservative, popular with the base and coming off a hugely successful legislative session for Republicans. Many supporters credit DeSantis for weathering the pandemic by reopening Florida’s economy as quickly as possible. DeSantis also enjoys a high profile nationally on conservative media. And fellow Republican Donald Trump easily won Florida in the last presidential election.
The Crist campaign promises a long, tough and revealing election season.
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