Florida Democrats choose Rep. Charlie Crist to challenge Gov. DeSantis

Florida voters will choose between two familiar candidates in this November’s race for governor.

On Tuesday, U.S. Representative and former governor, Charlie Crist, won the Democratic nomination, handily defeating Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried by nearly 25 points.

"Tonight, the people of Florida clearly sent a message: They want governor who cares about them to solve real problems, who preserves our freedom. Not a bully who divides us and takes our freedom away," said Crist to a room full of supporters at his victory party in downtown St. Petersburg.

Crist will now go head-to-head with Governor Ron DeSantis, who won the office in 2018 by a margin so thin it required a recount. Over the last four years, however, DeSantis has shot to national prominence and is currently a favorite to reclaim a second term.

DeSantis is also frequently cited as a possibility for the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. On Tuesday night, Crist told supporters his opponent is more focused on that race than serving his own state.

"Guys, this is simple. Governor DeSantis only cares about the White House. He doesn’t care about your house," said Crist.

Crist will do his best to appeal to Florida voters who may have become disenchanted with or oppose the governor’s focus on culture war issues.

In his victory speech, Crist promised to protect a woman’s right to abortion, expand voting rights, and support teachers.

"On day one of my administration, I will sign an executive order protecting a woman’s right to choose," said Crist.

He also promised to restore Hillsborough County's former state attorney Andrew Warren, who Governor DeSantis suspended earlier this month in what has largely been criticized as a political move.

Crist served as the governor of Florida on the Republican ticket from 2007 to 2011. In 2010, he unsuccessfully ran for Senate as an Independent, losing to Marco Rubio. In 2014, Crist lost his challenge to then-incumbent Governor Rick Scott while running on the Democratic ticket. Since then, Pinellas voters have twice elected him to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I’m sad to say that I no longer recognize the leaders of the Republican Party. They’re extremists. They’re trying to turn back the clock on our freedom. They’re trying to undermine democracy in ways no one could’ve ever imagined. That stops here, that stops now, and it stops with our Florida," said Crist.

The Democratic nominee says he’s hoping to win over Independents and Republicans in his quest to reclaim the governor’s mansion.

Fried 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.

"We are going to make Ronald DeSantis a one-term governor and a zero-term president of the United States," she said as she conceded Tuesday, calling on her supporters to come together to support Crist.

Not far away in a raucous ballroom in Miami, DeSantis declined to say Crist’s name and instead cast the general election as contest against President Joe Biden and their "woke" ideology.

"We will never ever surrender to the woke agenda," DeSantis charged. "Florida is a state where woke goes to die."

One-on-one with Charlie Crist: His views on abortion, home insurance crisis

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. New York Democrats on Tuesday picked Jerry Nadler over Carolyn Maloney in a congressional primary that featured two powerful House committee chairs competing for the same seat.

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.

ST PETERSBURG, FL - AUGUST 23: Florida Gubernatorial candidate Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) waves to his supporters after casting his vote in the primary election at The Gathering Church on August 23, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. Crist faces his oppo

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.

MORE: Democratic Rep. Val Demings to challenge Republican Marco Rubio for US Senate

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.

Elsewhere in Florida, Trump protégé Rep. Matt Gaetz won his Republican primary in his Florida Panhandle district despite being under federal investigation in a sex trafficking case. Gaetz is heavily favored to win a fourth term come November.

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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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report