MIAMI — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist won the Democratic nomination for governor in Florida on Tuesday, setting him up to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis this fall in a campaign that the Republican incumbent sees as the first step toward a potential White House run.
In selecting Crist, Florida Democrats sided with a candidate backed by many in the party’s establishment who viewed him as the safest choice, even after he lost his previous two statewide elections. The 66-year-old already served one term as a Republican governor more than a decade ago before becoming a Democrat. His moderate stances could appeal to voters in Florida’s teeming suburbs as Democrats seek to reverse a losing pattern in a state that was recently seen as a perennial political battleground.
Above all, the Democratic contest centered on DeSantis, who views his November reelection as a potential springboard into the 2024 presidential contest.
"Tonight, the people of Florida clearly sent a message: They want a governor who cares about them and solves real problems, preserves our freedom, not a bully who divides us and takes our freedom away," Crist declared, declining to use DeSantis' name. "This guy wants to be president of the United States of America and everybody knows it. However, when we defeat them on Nov. 8 that show is over. Enough."
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Crist won the Democratic nomination over Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner. She staked out a more progressive campaign and was particularly vocal in defending abortion and LGBTQ rights. The 44-year-old cast herself as “something new” and hoped to become Florida's first female governor. In a sign of the party’s meager standing in Florida, she’s currently the only Democrat holding statewide office.
Fried said she called Crist to congratulate him on his victory and asked her supporters to come together to support the Democratic nominee.
"We are going to make Ronald DeSantis a one-term governor and a zero-term president of the United States," she said.
From a raucous ballroom in Miami, DeSantis previewed the general election contest as a contest against not just Crist, but against President Joe Biden and “woke” ideology.
"We will never ever surrender to the woke agenda," DeSantis charged. "Florida is a state where woke goes to die."
WATCH: Nikki Fried's concession speech
The Republican governor won his first election by less than half a percentage point, but soon became one of the most prominent figures in GOP politics. His hands-off approach to the pandemic and 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.
The Florida contest concludes the busiest stretch of primaries this year, which featured contests in 18 states over just 22 days. In that span, Republicans from Arizona to Alaska have supported contenders who 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 — with some exceptions. Voters in New York Tuesday night decided congressional primaries that featured 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.
U.S. Rep. Val Demings easily won the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Sen. Marco Rubio this fall. Demings, a former police chief and a prodigious political fundraiser, has a chance to become Florida’s first Black female senator.
While some Democrats are hopeful that Demings can unseat Rubio, the party's national leadership is prioritizing competitive Senate contests in other states, including neighboring Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Demings was optimistic as she reflected on her unlikely life story before a crowd of cheering supporters.
“Together, I really do believe this daughter of a maid and janitor who is not supposed to be standing here tonight — I really do believe that together we can do anything,” she said.
In Florida's governor's race, the Supreme Court's abortion decision animated the final weeks of the Democratic primary.
Fried 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.”
Meanwhile, Trump protégé Rep. Matt Gaetz won his Republican primary contest in his Florida Panhandle district despite being under federal investigation in a sex trafficking case. Gaetz defeated GOP challenger Mark Lombardo, a former Marine and executive at FedEx, and is heavily favored to win a fourth term come November.
Florida is not expected to be among the most competitive states this fall given its rightward shift, but it may be the most expensive.
Crist raised $14 million so far this election cycle, nearly twice as much as Fried. But he’s going up against a fundraising behemoth. DeSantis’ political operation has already raised more than $165 million since he took office, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s on pace to shatter the record for the most money ever raised by a candidate for governor.
“Don’t let anyone tell you it’s going to be easy. Over the next two and a half months, they’re gonna throw everything they have at us,” DeSantis said. He added, “I got elected less than four years ago, but we’re just getting warmed up.”
Peoples reported from Washington, Farrington from Tallahassee. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee and Marc Levy in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.