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In Race To Face DeSantis, It’s Ms. ‘Something Recent’ Versus Mr. Seventh Time Around


MIMS, Fla. — In her 44 years alive and three years as the only real statewide elected Democrat, Nikki Fried had not made it to the location where Florida’s iconic civil rights couple were blown up in their very own home seven many years earlier, until a campaign swing to bolster support amongst Black voters brought her to the restored cottage.

She listened attentively during her tour through a room of photos and mementos, interrupting just once to correct the guide when she, in Fried’s view, inappropriately gave Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis credit for pardoning the Groveland 4, when it was technically the governor and Cabinet, of which she is a member. She posed for pictures with the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex staff and board members. She walked through the replica of the house itself round the corner, where mannequins of the couple drafted a letter at their dining table.

Yet even in northern Brevard County, 300 miles from the state capital where her opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor had been a fixture for twenty years, Fried couldn’t escape his shadow.

There, in a frame on the lounge wall, was a 2010 note to the Moores’ daughter, Juanita, explaining that it had been an honor to assist secure funding for the museum’s completion to “proceed the legacy of your parents.” It was signed by Charlie Crist, who on the time had been the state’s Republican governor.

Indeed, it was because the sitting attorney general 4 years earlier, in his fourth statewide run in eight years, that Crist had finally announced a detailed to the decades-old murder investigation into the case, naming 4 long-dead Klansmen because the killers and calling the Christmas Day bombing “domestic terrorism.”

“Our pledge was to go away no stone unturned on this investigation,” Crist said on the 2006 news conference. “From an intensive review of fifty years of records, to interviewing over 100 individuals, to excavating the bombing site, we literally have kept that pledge.”

It was, because it seems, a metaphor for the race itself: Irrespective of where Nikki Fried goes in Florida, Charlie Crist has already been there.

And because the race to win the chance to challenge a particularly well-funded incumbent governor enters its final month, Fried could also be learning what so many candidates running within the third-largest state with 10 distinct media markets have already learned: That having been there before matters. Loads.

“He’s run so over and over, he’s built so many relationships,” said David Geller, president of the Miami Beach Democratic Club, as his members settled in for his or her monthly meeting at a Collins Avenue hotel. “Everyone has a Charlie story.”

While public polls have been infrequent and of various reliability, they’ve generally shown Crist, who’s 65, in his third term as a congressman from St. Petersburg, and now making his seventh statewide race, with a considerable lead. Last month, the Fried campaign released an internal poll suggesting that many Democratic voters, in the event that they were told certain facts about Fried and Crist, as a rule preferred Fried.

The Crist camp countered with its own internal poll of likely Democratic voters, showing Crist ahead by 21 points.

One longtime Democratic consultant said he doesn’t know for certain if the Crist poll is true but noted, on condition of anonymity, one clue that it’s: Crist barely acknowledges Fried, spending all his time criticizing DeSantis. Fried, alternatively, spends a very good chunk of her time attacking Crist.

“They’re each campaigning prefer it’s right,” he said.

Running As ‘Something Recent’

Nicole “Nikki” Fried, as is perhaps expected, is hoping to show Crist’s long track record as an elected official and candidate against him.

Her campaign slogan — “It’s time for something recent” — reminds voters that Crist is decidedly not recent, that he had been a Republican for nearly all of his political profession, and that he already ran for governor as a Democrat in 2014, only to lose to then-incumbent Republican Rick Scott.

She, in contrast, has only run for public office a single time, in 2018. To the surprise of many Democrats and Republicans each, the previous public defender turned marijuana industry lobbyist managed a narrow win with a candidacy that focused on her view that state lawmakers were deliberately stonewalling voters who had approved a medical marijuana constitutional amendment 4 years earlier.

It gave Democrats only their second seat on the Cabinet because it was streamlined from six positions all the way down to three in 2002. And with the lack of former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018, she is the now the one Democrat elected statewide currently in office.

“We imagine that the people of our state, especially the Democratic Party, are searching for fresh blood, they’re searching for a fighter,” she told HuffPost. “After we are capable of speak to people and get our vision across, it’s an evening and day comparison between the 2 of us. Being a life-long Democrat since I used to be 17 years old and allowed to register, the problems that I fight for today are the identical issues that I used to be fighting for back in highschool.”

Her fans across the state say they love that approach. “She really goes after DeSantis,” said Tina Jaramillo, a schoolteacher attending the Broward Democrats meeting on the Tamarac Community Center last month, the bass line thumping from the spin class round the corner. “She knows tips on how to handle him. She knows tips on how to push his buttons.”

But Fried’s lack of political experience prior to her agriculture commissioner race appears to be taking a toll as she runs for a much higher-profile job. Most statewide politicians have run for local offices or legislative districts previously, giving them a regional base. Crist, for instance, was state senator in St. Petersburg for six years before his first statewide run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, and the Tampa Bay region has continually given him stronger support than the remainder of the state.

Fried, although she is from Broward County, an enormous bastion of Democratic votes, is just not that significantly better known or popular there than the remainder of the state. In Crist’s internal poll, he’s running as well in South Florida as he’s in Tampa Bay — a finding matched by a St. Pete Polls survey taken last month.

What’s more, while Fried boasts that she is the one Democrat to have won statewide in 2018, that victory will not be particularly predictive for coming elections.

That yr was the midterm for then-President Donald Trump, which energized Democrats all over the place. It allowed Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, who on the time was under FBI investigation for public corruption, to come back inside 33,000 votes of DeSantis, then a congressman from the Jacksonville area.

That very same electorate selected Fried over former state representative Matt Caldwell, but her margin of victory was just 6,753 votes – and ultimately she received 43,232 fewer votes in her election than DeSantis did in his.

Crist’s loss in 2014, as compared, took place during then-President Barack Obama’s second midterm, a Republican-wave election. What’s more, it was a narrow loss, with Crist coming inside 65,000 votes of beating Scott, the incumbent Republican.

Wooing The Black Vote

It was the late summer of 2006, the ultimate weeks before the Republican primary to succeed term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush, and Charlie Crist stood at the underside of a bridge within the Panhandle, holding an indication and waving to drivers as they returned to the mainland from beachside.

One after one other, cars and SUVs and pickups would pass by Crist, honking as he waved, until a pickup truck flying a Confederate flag rolled down off the bridge.

The driving force honked. Crist didn’t wave.

He said nothing, but an aide smiled. “We don’t need that guy’s vote.”

In a Republican primary in a state where public school children not that a few years ago were taught that the Civil War was higher understood because the “War of Northern Aggression,” Crist rejected his party’s Southern Strategy playbook and pushed policies that in some cases were more progressive than those backed by his eventual Democratic opponent.

Crist proposed aggressive climate-change rules, pushing utilities away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables. He vowed to crack down on property insurers’ rate hikes, and open up the state-run insurer of last resort to more Floridians. But most striking of all were his moves to win over African American support, including a vow to more rapidly restore voting rights to felons after that they had accomplished their sentence.

The outreach to the Black community, which actually began years earlier in his first successful statewide campaign in 2000, for education commissioner, paid off on election night 2006, with Crist winning a full 18% of the African American vote. In contrast, Jeb Bush had received only 6% in 1994, when he lost, and 11% in 1998, when he won.

Sixteen years later, Crist, now a Democrat, is just not taking that support without any consideration. On a recent swing through northeast Florida coinciding with the Juneteenth weekend, Crist hit festivals in three different cities on Saturday and visited three Black churches for services on Sunday.

He knows to drop in a “God is nice” to make a degree, and to attend for the “on a regular basis,” response, and makes sure to clarify to the congregants that his last name, originally Christodoulos before his immigrant grandfather shortened it, means “disciple of Christ” in Greek.

At St. Paul AME Church in Jacksonville, he was met at the doorway by volunteer Ethel Brooks. “We all know what you probably did as governor,” she told him, and explained later: “I feel he did Florida well.”

And on the Juneteenth celebration at Palatka High School — where Crist asked the hosts to play Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” after which danced a number of measures with one in every of the emcees, a former Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleader — he was consistently stopped by supporters who wanted selfies with him.

Ty Fields, 46, approached him with a challenge: “I’m going to check your memory.” He then explained that he met him a number of years earlier in St. Petersburg at a voting rights rally, and thanked him for helping get his voting rights back after his release from prison. “I ended up meeting you, and we took an image.”

With African Americans making up nearly 30% of the Democratic primary electorate in Florida, Fried also has been working hard to woo them. The visit to the Harry and Harriette Moore museum was followed by a campaign visit to a Black-owned business in South Florida — a marijuana dispensary in West Palm Beach.

She said a Fried administration would be sure that legalized marijuana brings jobs and tax revenue to poor communities, too. “Putting dispensaries in minority communities, because they’re not there straight away,” she said, adding that doing so would help address past wrongs. “We all know that the war on drugs hurt Black and brown disproportionately.”

Crist’s decadeslong reference to Black voters, though, might well be an excessive amount of for Fried to beat. Within the June St. Pete Polls survey of the race that found Crist leading overall 49-24, he was leading 51-17 amongst Black voters. The Crist internal poll had a smaller, but still enormous, margin: 58 percent to 31.

“Charlie has two-to-one support from the Black community, and in a Florida Democratic primary which means you’re winning big,” said Joshua Karp, a Crist campaign senior adviser.

Crist’s Anti-Abortion Justices

For all his breaks from Republican orthodoxy, though, there was one truly conservative thing Crist did do as a Republican governor which can now come back to haunt him as he runs for the Democratic nomination.

Among the many justices that Crist placed on the Florida Supreme Court in his 4 years were Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, each of whom are still on the court and each of whom are actually and were known then as extremely conservative, including on abortion matters.

With the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court last month, the query of abortion rights within the state might be determined by Florida’s highest court, which soon could have before it a recent law approved by the Republican legislature and DeSantis that bans abortion after 15 weeks.

The Florida court has previously struck down abortion restrictions based on the state structure’s explicit right to privacy, but — abortion rights advocates, Fried amongst them, warn — the present court could easily break from that precedent.

“His decision when he was governor of the state goes to have drastic implications on our freedoms today,” Fried said at a news conference in front of the Florida Supreme Court constructing after the choice reversing Roe was released. She added that his inability to take responsibility for those decisions “disqualifies” him from being the Democratic nominee.

Crist, who for years has said that while he personally opposes abortion, he doesn’t feel it appropriate to impose that view on others, nevertheless said as he ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2006 that he would support a ban on abortion if it included exceptions for rape, incest and lifetime of the mother.

Upon his election, nonetheless, he never pushed for such a ban, and today he points out that as governor he vetoed a bill sent to him that might have forced women looking for an abortion to not only first get an ultrasound, but additionally to pay for it.

“I’m the just one on this race to have vetoed a bill like that,” he said.

He defended his Supreme Court appointments as highly qualified, and said he had believed that abortion rights in Florida wouldn’t be in danger due to the privacy language within the state’s structure which had been relied upon in previous abortion cases. “Let’s hope the respect for Florida’s structure and, in the actual, the privacy clause is undamaged,” he said, but acknowledged that he didn’t know the way Canady and Polston would rule. “I suppose we’ll discover.”

The $118 Million DeSantis Juggernaut

Whichever of the 2 wins the Democratic nomination on Aug. 23 must then face DeSantis in November, who began raising big money since he took office in 2019 and has not stopped.

Crist initially of this month had raised a complete of $11 million, with just over half of that available to spend. Fried had raised $7 million and had $3.6 million available. Each will likely spend all they raise in the approaching weeks battling one another, with the winner emerging from the first.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has raised $131 million since taking office, and has $118 million available to make use of. He faces no primary opponent, and polling shows that Floridians generally approve of his performance as governor.

“Well, anything’s possible,” said the Democratic strategist who believes Crist is in good position to win the first. “But I’d say straight away there’s a one-in-a-100 probability of beating DeSantis.”

Democratic activists, though, say that DeSantis’ governing style and constant moves to rile up his conservative base will play to their advantage. On top of that’s the overall expectation that he intends to run for president in 2024 — meaning that if he wins a second term as governor, he’ll immediately begin running for the White House.

While avid Crist and Fried supporters care deeply about which one might be the nominee, Democratic voters more generally seem like motivated primarily by a desire to defeat DeSantis in November.

“There’s loads of passion surrounding the governor’s race on the Democratic side,” said Geller, head of the Miami Beach Democrats. “I feel our club is evenly split, if I needed to guess.”

Mike Eidson, a 42-year-old activist on the Palatka Juneteenth festival working to rid the town of memorials honoring Confederate leaders, said his top priority is denying DeSantis a second term, and so is basing his selection in the first on who’s more more likely to accomplish that.

“Fried is younger and newer to politics, and sometimes they’ve a greater probability of winning,” he said, but added that he likes each Fried and Crist and would don’t have any problem if either were governor.

Republican consultants, though, predict it would be near not possible for either of them to beat DeSantis.

“Polls, policy and resource advantage in money and enthusiasm say: no probability. We aren’t arguing consequence, we’re measuring margin,” said David Johnson, a former executive director of the state party.

Yet in keeping with one former top Republican, Democrats do have one probability of beating DeSantis: If former President Donald Trump, who also desires to run for president in 2024 despite the multiple investigations into his Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt, decides to sabotage him.

“He’s as sure a thing as Hillary Clinton was against Donald Trump in 2016,” said Mac Stipanovich, a chief of staff to former GOP governor Bob Martinez. “She was defeated by a black swan event in ’16, and it would take a black swan event to defeat DeSantis for re-election in 2022, like him being undermined or attacked by the black swan now resident at Mar-a-Lago.”

Neither Trump’s staff nor a DeSantis campaign spokesperson responded to HuffPost’s queries.

But Stipanovich said DeSantis’ polling lead and money advantage could prove meaningless if Trump persuades enough of his followers to desert DeSantis, who took a lead in his primary race for governor only after Trump endorsed him. “Trump willed DeSantis into existence in 2018, and he still has the ability to will him into oblivion,” Stipanovich said.

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