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Charlie Crist is back — or at least he wants to be.
Once a preeminent presence in state politics, Crist announced Tuesday that he’s again attempting to return to the office he held a decade ago: Florida governor.
He announced his candidacy via video Tuesday morning — in which he touted accomplishments from his previous term as governor and delivered scorching criticism of Gov. Ron DeSantis — before holding an event in The Deuces, a center of the Black community in St. Petersburg.
“We can build a Florida for all Floridians. We can create a society that values every person. We can break the fever of division and hatred that has afflicted our politics,” Crist said in advance speech excerpts released by the campaign. “Every year, the middle class gets squeezed — by rent and housing costs, by utility bills, by health care costs, by student loan debt, by stagnant wages.”
Now a Democrat, Crist was the state’s Republican governor from 2007 until 2011. He’s now a member of Congress from St. Petersburg, and running for the state’s top job requires him to forgo running for a fourth term.
It’s an exceedingly difficult quest. Unlike 2014, when Crist had a relatively easy path to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination when party leaders effectively cleared the field on his behalf, the 2022 race will be much more challenging.
He faces formidable opposition for the Democratic nomination. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide Democrat in Florida, is an all-but-declared candidate for the gubernatorial nomination. And U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Central Florida — who gained national exposure as an impeachment manager during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial and was considered as a running mate for President Joe Biden — may also run.
Demings and Fried sought to take away some of the attention on Crist on Tuesday morning.
Demings released a campaign video — which she titled “Ready for the moment — that was biographical introduction to people who don’t know her and included several inspirational comments: “Success is not only about being prepared, it’s about opportunity,” “If you don’t like something, then you do something to change it,” “We have to have decisive, smart, strategic leaders,” and “Always work hard, stay focused and never grow tired of doing good.”
Fried’s office said she would have a Tallahassee news conference Tuesday morning about the same time Crist is appearing in St. Petersburg. Her political strategist, Kevin Cate, who worked for Crist’s last gubernatorial campaign and his congressional campaigns tweeted Tuesday that he wishes Crist “the best,” adding his assessment that Fried can beat DeSantis.
Whoever gets the nomination will face Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican incumbent and likely 2024 presidential candidate. While publicly professing optimism, many Democrats believe DeSantis will be tough to beat. A Democrat hasn’t been elected governor of Florida since 1994.
The Republican Governors Association, the party’s national organization that works to elect and re-elect Republicans as state chief executives, hurled invective back at Crist. “[I]f you thought it was pathetic how Floridians rejected Charlie Crist the last two times he ran statewide, just wait until you see how they react to the latest version of Charlie,” the RGA said, lambasting him for thanking God every day that Biden is in the White House and “trying to give socialists like AOC more power.”
Crist, 64, has already lost to the other two biggest names in Florida politics, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
When Crist was the Republican governor, he was at one point seen as the sure Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010. But he left the party when it became obvious he’d be defeated in the primary by Rubio and ran for the Senate as an independent/no-party affiliation candidate. Rubio won, finishing 19.2 percentage points ahead of Crist, who came in second in a three-way race.
By 2014, Crist was a Democrat, and he challenged then-Gov. Rick Scott for re-election. Scott won, finishing 1 percentage point ahead of Crist.
In 2016, he won the first of his three terms in the House as a Democrat. Running for governor also would avoid a potentially more difficult re-election campaign for the House. Republicans who control state government will be redrawing district boundaries before the 2022 elections, and Crist could find himself in a district with many more Republicans.
Earlier in his career, Crist was a Republican state senator, education commissioner and attorney general.
His transformation away from the Republican party began in February 2009 when Crist, then the governor, hugged Barack Obama when the new Democratic president visited the state. With the rise of the tea party movement and conservative populism, many Republicans began regarding him as a pariah.
It would be hard to overstate how much people who have been active for years in Florida politics came to despise Crist — something that predated the rise of the kind of confrontational politics encouraged by former President Donald Trump.
When Crist ran for the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, he was denounced by George LeMieux as an opportunist with no principles who had “changed positions so much that he’s unrecognizable.”
LeMieux, a former Broward Republican chairman, had been Crist’s deputy attorney general and was so essential to his successful 2006 gubernatorial campaign that he dubbed LeMieux the “maestro.” He later appointed LeMieux to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy.
Still, Crist is a formidable candidate. He knows better than anyone the rigors of a high profile, expensive campaign for a major office. And he’s personable on the campaign trail, with a gift for a personal style of politics matched by few politicians in the modern era, with the exception of former President Bill Clinton.
The Aug. 23, 2022, Democratic primary is less than 16 months away.