Charlie Crist, Nikki Fried take final lap around Florida in chase for primary votes

·8 min read

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s heated Democratic primary for governor is headed toward the finish line, with Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried taking a whirlwind last lap around the state to air closing sales pitches to voters.

Fried is heightening her call for supporters to make history — by positioning her to become Florida’s first woman governor and an unswerving defender of abortion rights now under fire nationally and in the state.

“We have to be trying something new,” Fried said during a campaign homestretch rally at a Tallahassee brewery. “In this primary and in this general election, something new for every single mom who can’t afford her rent, something new for every Black entrepreneur who is competing against a rigged system, something new for our teachers, who just want to teach.”

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Nikki Fried has organized Roe The Vote events around the state in her campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Nikki Fried has organized Roe The Vote events around the state in her campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Crist, she concluded, can’t beat Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. By contrast, Crist at his appearances says the same about Fried in a race polls show is tightening amid a wave of hard-edged TV spots each Democrat is flinging against the other.

“We need somebody who goes into this job who doesn’t need on-the-job training, and I certainly don’t,” said Crist, who is focusing mostly on DeSantis but has ads pushing back against Fried’s attack on his Republican past.

Crist said his spots weren’t negative. “I’ve gone accurate,” he said.

“I was hoping that it could’ve been more positive,” Crist said of the campaign end game. “She’s decided to do what she’s done. Everybody has their own style. I’m just going to make sure people know what they’re getting on that ballot.”

Charlie Crist speaking to faith leaders in Tallahassee during homestretch of Democratic primary for governor
Charlie Crist speaking to faith leaders in Tallahassee during homestretch of Democratic primary for governor

Whoever wins Tuesday’s primary, Crist said Democrats will rally around the nominee, knowing who the real opponent is.

“The galvanizing part of this campaign is a guy named Ron DeSantis,” Crist said.

Likely low-turnout contest

The primary is certain to be marked by low voter turnout, with past August primaries pulling in fewer than one-in-three Florida Democrats. Crist has been endorsed by Florida’s largest labor unions and has a larger force of get-out-the-vote support.

But Fried is banking on many late-deciding voters coming to her side, as Florida Democrats finally begin making up their minds in a contest that began 15 months ago, when the two rivals announced their candidacies to take on DeSantis..

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A University of North Florida poll released Tuesday showed Fried with a narrow lead over Crist, on the strength of stronger support among women voters. Crist’s campaign countered with its own internal survey showing him comfortably ahead.

Polls, though, show DeSantis beating either Democrat in November's general election.

But in making their final case to Democratic voters, Fried and Crist are a contrast, in gender and generation.

Fried, 44, is eagerly courting the votes of Florida women, having underscored her frequently mentioned “something new” campaign theme with a TV spot showing her striding through rows of male mannequins, symbolically separating her from past governors, including Crist, who have all been men.

A spot now airing across the state features women who made history — from suffragettes to tennis legend Billie Jean King and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown. Fried talks of “standing on the shoulders of all these trailblazing women.”

Crist, 66, tends to rely on a calm delivery, unspooling highlights and anecdotes from his long history as a former state senator, education commissioner, attorney general and governor — all when he was a Republican.

He also ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for governor in 2014, losing to Republican Gov. Rick Scott by 64,145 votes, a 1% margin. Crist has since served three terms as a Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg.

In campaigning, Crist speaks fondly of Florida, its environment and people, promotes his defense of Florida consumers against insurers and utilities, and occasionally notes the gold wristband he wears — an adherence, he said, to the “golden rule” of treating others as one wants to be treated.

Crist, though, blisters DeSantis.

“He’s focused on his own ambitions, not yours, and not your future, but his,” Crist said, ridiculing DeSantis’ courting of support for a possible presidential bid in two years.

Fried goes after Crist and DeSantis

Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and lone statewide elected Democrat, readily attacks the culture war policies of DeSantis in schools and workplaces, which she argues divide Floridians and ignore housing costs, gun safety and the need to improve the economy for all residents.

But she also is going after Crist. She accuses him of being unreliable on abortion rights, a charge Crist rejects and backs up with his top ratings from Planned Parenthood and other organizations.

Fried, though, portrays herself as more dependable.

“I am the only person in this race who has been pro-choice her entire life,” Fried said. “Who has never campaigned on all-out abortion bans, who has never appointed conservative, extremist Supreme Court justices who are now going to take away our right to privacy here in the state of Florida.”

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Crist, as governor from 2007-11 appointed three justices still on the state Supreme Court, which is expected to review a 1989 ruling that declared that the state’s constitutional right to privacy protects abortion rights.

A 15-week abortion law signed by DeSantis, in effect since July 1, is being challenged by women’s health organizations and is likely to wind up before the court, where the governor has appointed a majority of members.

Crist pushes back on attacks

While Crist often has described himself as “pro-life” through his 30-plus year career in Florida politics, during the campaign he vows repeatedly to defend abortion rights — rejecting the cloud Fried has cast over him on the issue.

VoteProChoice has endorsed Fried. But two prominent abortion rights organizations, the Florida Planned Parenthood PAC and Ruth’s List Florida, haven’t endorsed in the Democratic primary for governor.

Leaders say defeating DeSantis is the priority and having the strongest Democratic challenger also is a must. Some advocates have said they’re confident that Florida’s Democratic nominee for governor will defend abortion access.

“On the first day of the second Crist administration, the first day, I’ll sign an executive order that protects a woman’s right to choose,” Crist told rural voters during a Zoom call while traveling in a car near West Palm Beach.

“It’s too important,” he added. “I’ll fight for it and everything we need to do to make sure that right is maintained.”

Abortion is seen as animating many voters this fall, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision which overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling and sent the issue back to states to decide.

DeSantis a prime talking point

But DeSantis is a more steady talking point for both Crist and Fried.

“This guy’s capable of trying to do anything,” Crist said of DeSantis, who he tars as “Wrong Ron.”

“I’ve seen how he’s treated women in our state, and not respecting their right to choose, how he’s treating LGTQ kids in schools, how he’s treating African-Americans with their right to vote. It’s unconscionable what he does,” Crist said.

Fried also tees off on the Republican governor, who faces no primary challenger, but already is running TV spots in support of his November race. Heading into August, DeSantis had $125 million cash on hand for his campaign, dwarfing the $6 million Crist had as the leading Democratic fund-raiser.

“To him, freedom means to say anything or do anything that will get you on Fox News,” Fried said. “But if you don’t look like him, don’t sound like, don’t act like him, you’re totally screwed.”

Voters size up the contenders

Across the state, voters have been sizing up the two contenders.

“This is so exciting for me to be hosting a current congressman, a former governor, and potentially — what I like to believe — the next governor of the state of Florida,” said Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard County School Board member, who drew 80 people to her Satellite Beach home last month, for a meet-and-greet with Crist.

She said, “I believe we need a governor who just has basic common sense.”

Crist didn’t disappoint, firing up the poolside crowd of supporters.

“I’m trying to bring the sunshine back to the Sunshine State, because it’s been dark under this clown,” he said, referring to DeSantis.

Fried stopped recently at an early voting site in a Jacksonville public library.

Devron Herring, 42, said he voted early for Fried and backs her push to legalize recreational marijuana in Florida, which Crist also supports.

Herring said he was familiar with Crist. But, he added, “Times have changed so much.”

“For me, his time is up,” Herring said. “It’s a new era. It’s a new generation of everything that’s going on.”

Fried told supporters there, she expects to win big in Duval County.

“What Democrats care most about is winning in November,” she said. “They see I’m the one who has taken on Ron DeSantis the last three and a half years, that I’m able to tackle him on issue after issue (and) that I can get into the trenches and not just throw punches, but land them.”

Finch Walker of Florida Today and David Bauerlein of the Florida Times-Union contributed to this report.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Fried, Crist barnstorm Florida in Democratic primary for governor