Democrats jockey to challenge DeSantis in the fall
Democrats have spent the last few years fuming as Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken once-purple Florida in an unabashedly conservative direction.
But in the fall, they’ll have a shot — with the odds against them, given his popularity and fundraising prowess — to take him down in the state.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) are vying for the chance on Tuesday to challenge DeSantis for the governorship in a race that carries serious implications for the future of the state’s rising Republican star.
Fried has attempted to frame herself as an outsider. On her “Something New” tour in the final week of the primary race, Fried has crisscrossed the state in a bus emblazoned on the sides with her pro-abortion rights credentials to convince voters Crist has too much baggage to be given another shot.
FLORIDA WON’T BE ‘WOKE DUMPSTER FIRE’: DESANTIS ANNOUNCES TEACHER RECRUITMENT PLAN
Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida who switched parties in 2012, has held himself up as the more experienced and electable candidate.
Either would have an uphill battle to unseat DeSantis in November. The rising Republican star, a possible 2024 contender for the presidency, polls well ahead of both candidates in hypothetical head-to-head matchups; a recent poll from the Florida Chamber of Commerce showed DeSantis leading Fried by 7 points and Crist by 8.
On average, though, polls have found Crist trailing DeSantis by a slimmer margin.
DeSantis leads Fried by 9.6 percentage points, while he leads Crist by 6.2 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
And heading into the primary this week, one poll suggests a highly competitive contest between Fried and Crist, with Fried apparently closing the gap dramatically in the final days of the race. A dueling poll shows Crist still comfortably ahead. The two other contenders in the Democratic primary, Cadance Daniel and Robert Willis, are polling in the single digits.
Crist’s appeal is not unlike that of New York City Mayor Eric Adams or Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso. Instead of running to activate a liberal base, Crist has leaned on his record of bipartisanship and pledged to cut through needless drama to deliver for voters.
Like Crist, Caruso is also a former Republican.
But Fried has attempted to turn those credentials into a liability for Crist, accusing him of flip-flopping his way through too many years in the political establishment.
Fried’s focus on abortion has allowed her to draw a sharp contrast with Crist and make up much of her previous polling deficit by winning over women.
As a former Republican, Crist has shifted his position on abortion repeatedly.
“Crist’s stance has been consistently inconsistent,” Politifact noted in an April fact-check that rated Crist’s claim of having always supported abortion rights as false. “He’s called himself both ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ throughout his career, defining them on his own terms.”
Fried has centered her campaign on abortion since the Supreme Court rolled back the legal precedent that for decades stopped states from enacting abortion restrictions.
She has made voters a laundry list of promises involving abortion rights, including a pledge to push to put a proposed constitutional amendment protecting abortion access on the 2024 ballot and a pledge to veto any bill from the Florida legislature that restricts abortion.
DeSantis signed a bill in April that restricts abortions without exceptions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and the law went into effect in July after surviving a legal challenge.
Although Fried has characterized the law as unacceptably restrictive — she said last week that Florida women are living in a “dystopian novel” because of it — Florida has attracted women seeking abortions from states around the region that impose even more limits on the procedure.
While Crist has defended his pro-abortion rights credentials from Fried’s attacks, he’s also argued the race should focus less on intraparty policy debates and more on who can defeat DeSantis.
“This election is about good versus bad. It’s not even ideological right versus wrong. And Ron is wrong,” Crist said last week.
His attention has stayed mostly on DeSantis as the primary race draws to a close.
“I think people like having a governor that they can like,” Crist told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last month.
Fried has attempted to address the electability argument by constantly noting her status as the only Democrat elected statewide in Florida. She won her agriculture commissioner race in 2018.
While Crist has also won statewide in Florida, he did so as a Republican, winning the governorship in 2006, and has never done it as a Democrat.
Whoever emerges as the victor Tuesday will face DeSantis against an unfavorable backdrop. President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and persistent inflation have tilted the political landscape away from Democrats across the country, and Florida will be no exception.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER
But Fried or Crist will face an even more difficult task given DeSantis’s skill at prosecuting the case against some of the most controversial positions of the activist Left.
He generated a firestorm by moving earlier this year to ban gender and sexual identity instruction from kindergarten through third-grade classrooms — and then defended the law with the confidence and aggression that many elected Republicans lack.
DeSantis is almost certain to force his eventual opponent to spend part of the campaign talking about culture war issues that most Democrats running in red states would rather avoid.