Florida Democrats weighing candidates to challenge DeSantis

Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried faceoff in their one and only debate in Miami.
Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried faceoff in their one and only debate in Miami.(NBC 6 Miami)
Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 7:42 PM EDT
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MIAMI (AP) — Polls have closed across much of Florida on Tuesday as Gov. Ron DeSantis waits to learn the identity of his general election opponent in a matchup that could have presidential implications.

Florida Democrats are choosing between Charlie Crist, a 66-year-old Democratic congressman who served as the state’s Republican governor more than a decade ago, and 44-year-old Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who hopes to become the state’s first female governor while leaning into the fight for abortion rights.

While most polling places are closed, voting across the Florida Panhandle is scheduled to continue until 8 p.m. EDT.

The race is ultimately a debate over who is best-positioned to defeat DeSantis, who emerged from a narrow victory four years ago to become one of the most prominent Republicans in politics. His relatively light touch handling the pandemic and his eagerness to lean into divides over race, gender and LGBTQ rights have resonated with many Republican voters who see DeSantis as a natural heir to former President Donald Trump.

His reelection effort is widely assumed to be a precursor to a presidential run in 2024, adding to a sense of urgency among Democrats to blunt his rise now.

“I have been in the trenches. I have taken on DeSantis,” Fried told The Associated Press. DeSantis “won’t have a 2024 because he won’t have a 2022. We are going to beat him in November, and we are going to kill all of his aspirations to run for president of the United States.”

Crist, in an interview, described DeSantis as a threat to democracy.

“He is the opposite of freedom. He is an autocrat. He is a demagogue. And I think people are sick of him,” Crist said of the sitting Republican governor, noting that DeSantis earlier this year admonished a group of high school students for wearing face masks at an indoor news conference. “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? He is not the boss.”

The Florida contest wraps up the busiest stretch of primaries this year. Republicans from Pennsylvania to Arizona have supported contenders who have embraced Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen, an assertion roundly rejected by elections officials, the former president’s attorney general and judges he appointed.

And for the most part, Democrats have avoided brutal primary fights. That could be tested Tuesday, however, as voters in New York participate in congressional primaries that feature two powerful Democratic committee chairs, Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, competing for the same seat and other incumbents fending off challenges from the left.

Democrats are entering the final weeks ahead of the midterms with a sense of cautious optimism, hoping the Supreme Court’s decision overturning a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion will energize the party’s base. But Democrats still face tremendous headwinds, including economic uncertainty and the historic reality that most parties lose seats in the first midterm after they’ve won the White House.

The dynamics are especially challenging for Democrats in Florida, one of the most politically divided states in the U.S. Its last three races for governor were decided by 1 percentage point or less. But the state has steadily become more favorable to Republicans in recent years.

For the first time in modern history, Florida has more registered Republicans — nearly 5.2 million — than Democrats, who have nearly 5 million registered voters. Fried serves as the only Democrat in statewide office. And Republicans have no primary competition for four of those five positions – governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and chief financial officer — which are all held by GOP incumbents.


Democrats hope that U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who faces a little-known candidate in her Senate primary Tuesday, can unseat the state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Marco Rubio, this fall. But for now, the party’s national leadership is prioritizing competitive Senate contests in other states, including neighboring Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

In Florida’s governor’s race, the Supreme Court’s abortion decision has animated the final weeks of the Democratic primary.

Fried has promoted herself as the only true abortion-rights supporter in the race, seizing on Crist’s appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices while he was governor.

The conservative-leaning court will soon decide whether the Republican-backed state legislature’s law to ban abortions after 15 weeks is constitutional. Florida’s new abortion law is in effect, with exceptions if the procedure is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life, to prevent serious injury or if the fetus has a fatal abnormality. It does not allow exemptions in cases of rape, incest or human trafficking.

Crist insisted he is “pro-choice” and highlighted a bill he vetoed as governor in 2010 that would have required women seeking a first-trimester abortion to get and pay for an ultrasound exam.

“It is a woman’s right to choose,” Crist told the AP. “My record is crystal clear. And for my opponent to try to muddy that up is unconscionable, unfair and unwise.”

DeSantis and Fried spent several hours together on Tuesday morning during a Cabinet meeting at the Tallahassee statehouse. They kept things cordial during the hourslong event, which placed Fried seats away from the governor as they heard reports from agency heads on state finances, contracting and other matters.

DeSantis shook Fried’s hand as the meeting concluded and told her “good luck” before criticizing her campaign and predicting her loss in brief remarks to reporters.

“I think that you know she had an opportunity as being the only Democrat elected statewide to exercise some leadership and maybe get some things done and instead she’s used her time to try and smear me on a daily basis, that’s all she does,” DeSantis said of Fried.

After the meeting, Fried told reporters she thought the governor had scheduled the meeting as a way to sideline her during her final day of campaigning.

“Of course it’s not a coincidence,” she said of the meeting’s timing. “I think that he is scared of me winning tonight so he’s doing everything in his power to keep me off the campaign trail today.”


Peoples reported from Washington, Farrington from Tallahassee. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee and Marc Levy in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.