Democrats cool on Crist’s latest bid for Florida governor
ORLANDO, Fla. — Rep. Charlie Crist’s (D) nascent campaign for Florida governor is receiving a tepid reception from some Democrats.
As he embarks on his third bid for the governor’s mansion, Crist has found himself running in the shadow of other prominent Florida Democrats who are weighing campaigns of their own. Many Democrats in the state are expressing enthusiasm for Rep. Val Demings and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, both of whom are making clear overtures in the race to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Crist’s allies have cautioned against underestimating him, noting his strong record as a fundraiser and his high name ID among Florida voters, a reputation built over decades of statewide campaigns and a four-year stint as governor.
But other Democrats have expressed frustration about his campaign, arguing that he’s abandoning his House seat as the party scrambles to rebuild following a spate of disappointing losses in Florida in 2020. Some also fear a rehash of Crist’s failed 2014 gubernatorial run, arguing that the party would be better off nominating a fresh face in the gubernatorial race.
“He’s run for statewide office now, what? Half a dozen times?” said one Florida Democratic operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the primary field. “That’s not how we beat DeSantis — with the same old, same old.”
The stakes are particularly high for Florida Democrats next year. The party has been frozen out of the governor’s mansion for more than two decades and has swung even further away from Democrats over the past four years.
Following former President Trump’s 2016 win in the state, Republicans ousted longtime Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2018 while maintaining their hold on the governor’s mansion. In 2020, Trump carried the state for a second time, while Democrats lost two South Florida House seats that they had managed to flip two years earlier.
“The Republicans are well-organized; they are well funded,” the operative said. “DeSantis is raking in millions of dollars every quarter. There’s no room for error here.”
Crist’s allies, however, say that he is the candidate most capable of beating DeSantis in 2022, arguing that he can appeal to moderates and independents. A former Republican, Crist ran for the Senate in 2010 as an independent after losing the GOP primary to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) before becoming a Democrat in 2012.
Crist’s political career has spanned more than three decades. His latest bid for governor marks his seventh run for statewide office and his second attempt at returning to the office he held for four years as a Republican.
But unlike his two previous runs for governor, Crist is now expected to face an unfamiliar challenge: a competitive primary.
The jockeying for dominance in the emerging Democratic field is already underway. Hours before Crist announced his campaign on Tuesday, Demings released a video touting her leadership experience, including her tenure as Orlando police chief and role as a one of the House managers in Trump’s second impeachment trial.
Meanwhile, Fried held a press conference around the same time as Crist’s campaign announcement, during which she made clear that she was considering a bid for governor.
“As the only statewide-elected Democrat, it makes absolute sense for me to be running for governor,” Fried said. “But today is not the day for me to make that announcement.”
Fried also expressed concern about the fate of Crist’s House district, a Pinellas County swing district that the congressman has represented since 2017. Without Crist on the ballot, she said, his seat is at risk of falling into Republican hands.
“I’ve had communications with Congressman Crist, and it’s a time when we need his voice and his vote up in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “His seat is one that probably only Charlie Crist can hold on to, so really would like to have encouraged him to stay in Congress, but certainly today is Charlie’s day and wish him the best.”
Crist’s campaign team also looks a bit different this time around.
Kevin Cate, a Democratic ad maker and former Crist adviser, is no longer working with the Florida congressman and is openly boosting Fried in the race. He previously worked as a media consultant for Fried’s 2018 agriculture commissioner campaign and currently advises her political action committee.
And Crist’s top pollster, John Anzalone, is not returning to his role. Instead, the Florida congressman has brought on Mike Bocian, who handled polling for Sen. Raphael Warnock’s (D-Ga.) campaign, to do the job.
“With Nikki and Val in the mix here, it’s kind of natural to have people rushing into different corners,” one Democratic consultant said. “But I think it also says something about Crist and his chances.”
Crist has his strengths. He has more campaign experience than virtually any of his would-be competitors and enters the race with broad name ID.
He also announced an early endorsement on Thursday from Alcee “Jody” Hastings II, the son of the late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who died last month from pancreatic cancer. Jody Hastings said in a statement that, before he died, his father had “committed” to backing Crist in the governor’s race.
A March survey from Jacksonville-based Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy found that 90 percent of Florida voters recognized Crist’s name, while only 63 percent recognized Fried. Respondents weren’t asked about Demings.
But the same poll also found that Crist has a high name ID among voters, only 27 percent recognized him in a favorable light. Forty-one percent reported an unfavorable view of the Florida congressman.
Whomever emerges from the Democratic primary will have to take on DeSantis, a combative ally of Trump who has seen his political star rise among conservatives over his defiant approach to coronavirus restrictions and federal public health guidelines.
While DeSantis has become a sort of archvillain to many Democrats, he remains a powerful political force among Florida Republicans, and there are signs that his appeal may go beyond his conservative base of supporters. The Mason-Dixon poll from March found his approval rating above water at 53 percent approval to 43 percent disapproval.
Asked on Tuesday about Crist’s campaign announcement, DeSantis appeared dismissive of the challenge, saying that the Florida congressman has run as “a Republican, lost; independent, lost; Democrat lost.”
“Which party is he going to run under?” DeSantis asked sarcastically. “Do we know for sure?”