MIAMI – Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist, a former governor himself, won Florida’s primary on Tuesday for the right to take on one of the nation’s most recognizable Republicans, Governor Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, who has developed a powerful political brand in Florida – confident, confrontational, and controversial – since taking office in 2019, is not just seen as the frontrunner in November’s gubernatorial showdown, but also a likely frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. The $130 million in political contributions he’s collected from all over the country for his re-election effort is a massive factor too.
But Crist is also well-known to Floridians, having served as their Republican governor from 2007 to 2011, and most recently, as the Congressman from St. Petersburg since 2017.
1) Why Crist might beat DeSantis: the “Biden” moderate strategy
Crist won the Democratic primary convincingly, positioning himself as a left-leaning moderate who has the best chance at courting independent voters and beating a polarizing incumbent – just as president Joe Biden did on his path to the White House.
Is DeSantis a polarizing enough character that Crist – a former Republican – can peel away enough right-of-center voters to overcome Republicans’ growing registration advantage in Florida?
“Maybe there are tens of thousands of Charlie Crist Republicans still out there,” said Phil Prazan, political/investigative reporter for NBC Miami. “He’s betting his campaign on it.”
2) Why Crist might beat DeSantis: the governor’s vulnerabilities
DeSantis has taken aggressive action to combat what he’s described as “woke” liberal overreach on pandemic restrictions, ballot access, gun restrictions, school curriculums, government spending, and efforts to address inequality.
The culture wars have rubbed a lot of Democrats the wrong way, and the further DeSantis pushes, the more he may risk alienating moderate/swing voters too.
“At a certain point, even though Florida is now a red battleground state and not a purple swing state, DeSantis could lose the middle,” said NBC News’ Marc Caputo, a longtime Florida political reporter. “DeSantis seems to know this and he’s cautiously staying mum on whether he plans to pass more abortion restrictions.”
Crist also previewed an expected line of attack on the governor in his Tuesday night acceptance speech – that DeSantis already has one foot out the door to the White House. However, it’s unclear if DeSantis’ die-hard base in Florida is opposed to a 2024 presidential run.
3) Why Crist might beat DeSantis: it’s a loooong time to November
Crist is known in Florida as a ferocious fundraiser, and DeSantis’ $130 million cash advantage could look like chump change by the time this race is over. Ten weeks is a long time, especially if Democratic enthusiasm continues to climb nationwide.
“National Democrats…will re-allocate resources to Florida and the fundraising gap between Ron DeSantis and Charlie Crist could narrow,” said Peter Schorsch, published of FloridaPolitics.com and longtime friend of Crist. "No one thought another team could beat Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots. Then a guy catches a football on his helmet and the Giants win the Super Bowl. Florida politics is like the NFL that way."
It’s worth noting that few observers considered DeSantis a favorite after he emerged from the Republican primary in August 2018.
1) Why Crist might not beat DeSantis: the DeSantis brand
DeSantis risked his political reputation on dropping pandemic restrictions faster than almost any other state – and it paid off. His laser-focus on expanding “freedom” has resonated across Florida.
And while Florida experienced higher Covid death rates in 2021 than other states with older populations, polls show voters give DeSantis positive marks for his handling of the pandemic.
Polls also suggest DeSantis isn’t turning off moderate Republicans the way that former President Trump did, limiting the opportunity for his opponent to create new swing voters. It’s that reason so many national Republicans are bullish on a possible DeSantis presidential run.
2) Why Crist might not beat DeSantis: 2022 > 2018 for GOP
In 2018, DeSantis survived a “blue wave” election to win the governor’s mansion by roughly 32,000 votes. And while 2018 treated Republicans in Florida well, 2022 is shaping up to be an even better political climate for Republicans.
“He has reshaped Florida in his image,” Prazan said of DeSantis. “[Florida] imports GOP super voters every day from New Jersey, Ohio, Wisconsin, and other northern states…mix that with the GOP doing an excellent job swinging Hispanic voters their way - specially from Venezuela and Cuba – and this is becoming a red state.”
“From a statistical standpoint the votes just aren’t there for Crist,” added State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a former chair of the Florida Republican Party. “Republicans now have more than a 200,000-voter advantage over Democrats statewide…and DeSantis holds a double-digit [lead] with No Party Affiliated voters statewide, taking away the only path Crist has.”
3) Why Crist might not beat DeSantis: the DeSantis head start
DeSantis didn’t just amass a $100+ million cash head start on Crist, but with no contested primary to run, he’s been focused on his general election messaging for months. As Crist was fending off primary attacks from his left, DeSantis was assailing him from right.
And by Wednesday morning, as the ink was barely dry on Tuesday night’s primary results, voters across Florida were waking up to ads attacking Crist on everything from his support for the Biden economic agenda to being “out of touch” with average Floridians.
“Time and again, Republicans have defeated Democrats in Florida by going so negative that it helps depress the Democratic base,” Caputo said. “There’s no reason to think DeSantis won’t unload on Crist just to make sure he doesn’t catch fire.
“DeSantis has the money to stay up on television 24/7 in English, Spanish, and Creole if he wants. He already can command free media at the snap of a finger.”
One thing’s guaranteed in this race: voters can expect the noise to crescendo into a deafening blare as Election Day inches closer.
Noah Pransky is LX News' National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for LX News, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.