Crist, Fried both relying on faith, stamina, and money as Democratic gubernatorial primary nears

Their clash of styles sets stage for an uphill battle against DeSantis

By: - August 19, 2022 7:00 am

The Florida Governor’s Mansion. Credit: The Official Site of the People’s House of Florida; FL Dept. of Management Services

The Rev. R.B. Holmes introduced “brother Charlie Crist” to a roomful of mostly African American pastors in Tallahassee Monday as “bright and brilliant and bold.”

Holmes reminded the pastors gathered in a Bethel Missionary Baptist Church annex that, as education commissioner, Crist “did a tremendous job looking out for all of our children, especially marginalized communities;” as attorney general had “done a good job;” and as governor granted civil rights to “thousands of young men and young men who came out of prison [and] served their time.”

Then Crist took the podium, opening his remarks by quoting I Corinthians: “Faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love,” he said.

“This election is about love or the lack thereof,” Crist continued.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried campaigns in Tallahassee on Aug. 16, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

“I will be your voice and I will fight for fundamental fairness just like I did when I was your attorney general and fighting for civil rights,” he said.

Across town, one day later, Nikki Fried stood before a similarly sized group of her supporters at a brewpub during a stop in a bus tour of the state. She, too, offered an appeal to faith, in her case the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, instilled by her parents: “repair of the world.”

“I’m standing here as our only statewide-elected Democrat since 2012. Roe has been overturned. Black congressional districts are being eliminated. LGBT kids are being demoralized and demonized. State attorneys are being removed from office. And, on top of that, Florida has become unaffordable. Rents, health care, insurance, taxes. It’s an absolute nightmare,” Fried said.

“The system isn’t broken. It is working exactly how they designed it to work. And it’s on Ron DeSantis. And it’s on Rick Scott. It’s on all Republican governors and lawmakers who built this system,” she said. “And that includes Charlie Crist.”

Primary day

The race between Crist and Fried, whose ages place them roughly a generation apart, for Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination will culminate Tuesday, as voting ends in the Democratic primary.

He is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and an attorney. When he was a Republican, he served as education commissioner, attorney general, and governor of Florida.

She is Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Fried is an attorney, an elected statewide Cabinet member and a former lobbyist.

When it comes to ideology, there’s not a lot of air between his platform and hers on most issues.

One bone of contention involves abortion rights; their declared abortion planks both pledge to veto any new restrictions, extend Medicaid coverage for the procedure, and offer a safe harbor for providers against out-of-state restrictions. But, as Fried points out, Crist’s position has shifted as he moved from the Republican to Democratic party over the years toward a warmer embrace of abortion rights.

Each accuses Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis of dividing Floridians and abusing his authority. They both see him as a threat to democracy because he signed legislation restricting voting rights, erasing those two Black-dominated congressional districts in a reapportionment plan that advantages Republicans in apparent defiance of the Voting Rights Act, and is restricting public classroom discussion of discrimination against minority groups including LGBTQ people.

Crist is running on his decades of experience as an elected official and Fried, who’d become the first woman governor in Florida if she wins on Tuesday and then manages to beat Gov. Ron DeSantis, offers “something new” to voters. It’s her campaign theme and features in her first campaign ad.

“Experience. More than anything, it’s experience,” Crist told those pastors, who’d traveled to the event from across North Florida and planned to fan out to boost his vote. He’s conducted similar appeals to the Black vote elsewhere in the state.

“I mean, I’ve done this. I’ve been your governor before. … I’ve been your attorney general. Your commissioner of education. We need somebody who goes into this job that doesn’t need on-the-job training. I certainly don’t.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried campaigns in Tallahassee on Aug. 16, 2022. Credit: Michael Moline

Fried, meanwhile, hopes to leverage outrage at the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade to win the Governor’s Mansion.

“Women will decide this primary and this general election, and that has Ron DeSantis scared out of his mind,” she told her supporters that evening.

“I am the only Democrat who has won our state since 2012. And I’m the only Democrat who can beat Ron DeSantis,” Fried said.

Impregnable DeSantis?

If the incumbent is scared, it doesn’t show. As of the last campaign finance report on Aug. 5, the Friends of Ron DeSantis political committee had accumulated $178 million in cash. Accounting for $53 million in expenses, that would leave the committee about $125 million. He had nearly $16 million in his individual campaign account after expenses.

The Friends of Charlie Crist had nearly $1.8 million on hand after expenses and Crist had nearly $2.8 million in his campaign account, again subtracting expenses. The Fried-affiliated Florida Consumers First had a $379,274 and Fried’s campaign account had $644,570 after expenses.

An Orlando Sentinel analysis suggests Florida Consumers First drew $1 million from Big Sugar, Florida Power & Light, other major corporations, and “dark money” committees with hard-to-trace donors.

“Meanwhile, Crist’s political committee has received about $94,500 from some of the same anonymous committees that gave to Fried. But his biggest contributions – about $629,000 of the nearly $7 million his committee Friends of Charlie Crist has raised – came from labor unions,” the newspaper reported.

“The only people that I am beholden to, and I have proved that my entire life, are the people,” Fried insisted Tuesday night.

In polling, DeSantis has led both Democrats since late July by between 3 points and 8 points, according to a FiveThirtyEight survey of polls.

Gov. Ron DeSantis walks off stage after speaking during the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit held at the Tampa Convention Center on July 22, 2022, in Tampa. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Crist led Fried in the polls throughout the race until recently. Hours before Fried’s speech, a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida indicated that 47 percent of Democrats who said they were likely to vote or already had done so supported her, with 43 percent going for Crist.

The findings reflected a distinct gender gap, with 52 percent of male respondents favoring Crist and 55 percent of the women supporting Fried.

In a posited head-to-head match between Fried and DeSantis, 50 percent of registered voters chose DeSantis and 43 percent chose Fried. Against Crist, again, half opted for DeSantis and 42 percent for the congressman.

The margin for error was 3.4 percentage points. The survey was conducted by email between Aug. 8 and Aug. 12.

“Fried seems to have reversed the eight-point lead that Crist had when we asked registered Democrats about vote choice in February,” UNF professor Michael Binder, who oversaw the survey, said in a press release. “It’s possible that the overturning of Roe v. Wade changed the make-up of this race, and has particularly energized women that are almost 20 points more likely to vote for her.”

Conflicting polls

However, a St. Pete Polls telephone survey conducted Aug. 2 and Aug. 3 gave Crist a massive lead, with 55.8 percent of likely primary voters choosing him against 24.3 for Fried, with nearly 20 percent undecided or declining to declare a preference.

A Change Research poll conducted for the Crist campaign indicated 47 percent of likely Democratic voters favor Crist and 37 percent prefer Fried, according to news reports.

Fried made a campaign misstep in response to a Palm Beach Post report that she’d failed to deliver on her promised “major changes” to sugar cane burning practices that pose health risks to minority communities near Lake Okeechobee.

She told reporters that the Sierra Club “paid those reporters,” as Politico reporter Gary Fineout recounted on Twitter, although she didn’t back that up.

Fried declined to discuss the matter with reporters following her speech, saying, “I’m moving on to issues that the people actually care about.”

Fried underlined her feminist credentials in releasing what’s billed as her “final TV ad” ahead of the primary. The spot, featuring Tom Petty’s “Won’t Stand Down,” places her candidacy within more than a century of feminism. It shows her telling people during a demonstration that they needed to “stand on the shoulders of the women that came before us.”

“To every little girl in Florida and across the country, we are doing this for you,” Fried says.

Abortion rights

Crist, meanwhile, has posted an ad featuring prominent Democrats including Florida House member Anna Eskamani, Senate candidate Val Demings, and former Planned Parenthood president Barbara Zdravecky vouching for his bona fides as a defender of abortion rights.

“Charlie Crist is the only candidate for governor who vetoed anti-abortion legislation,” Eskamani says in the ad. That bill would have forced pregnant women to get an ultrasound before getting an abortion.

Crist has promised to sign an executive order, which he’s already drafted, protecting access to abortion. It promises to sue any government entity that seeks to infringe against abortion rights and to bar state agencies from cooperating with any effort by the federal government or other states to go after doctors who perform the procedure or other people who help pregnant people seek it.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried gathered abortion-rights supporters on July 1, 2022, at the Florida Supreme Court, which will rule in a challenge to Florida’s new 15-week abortion ban. Credit: Michael Moline

Fried points out that Crist hasn’t always been a firm supporter of abortion rights. PolitiFact, the fact-checking news organization, backs her up: “Crist’s stance has been consistently inconsistent. He’s called himself both ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’ throughout his career, defining them on his own terms,” the organization reported in April.

Fried has been steadfast on the point, which she began highlighting in campaign ads as early as June, accusing Crist of appointing three Republican justices to the Florida Supreme Court, which fairly soon will decide whether the Florida Constitution protects abortion access: Charles Canady, Ricky Polston, and Jorge Labarga. (He also appointed James E.C. Perry, an African American. And Larbarga tends toward moderation in his rulings.)

In August, a Fried ad highlighted Crist’s appointment of Canady, calling the justice an “anti-choice extremist.” The video ends with the sentiment that Floridians “just can’t trust Charlie Crist. Not as a Republican. Not as a Democrat. Not at all.”

Fried cites endorsements from the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida, the Democratic Environmental Caucus, Florida College Democrats, Jacksonville Young Democrats, and Treasure Coast Young Democrats. Also in her camp are two dozen sitting and former state House members, local officials, and prominent citizens including Fred Guttenberg, the gun-control advocate.

Crist has dominated in endorsements, including newspaper editorial boards, unions like the AFL-CIO and American Federation of Government Employees, and scores of sitting and former elected officials.

‘Ron doesn’t care about you’

U.S. Rep Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. Fried unleashed campaign ads attacking his record on abortion. Credit: Nikki Fried for Governor campaign, Charlie Crist for Governor campaign.

“Ron doesn’t care about you. He cares more about the White House than your house, and that’s crystal clear to anybody watching,” Crist told the pastors on Monday, many of whom spoke of decades-long associations with the candidate.

“This governor has torn apart Florida and he’s pitted one group against another the entire time. And that’s not what Florida’s about. Florida is a place of great people, good people, and the notion that he wants to pit, you know, gay against straight and black against white, men against women and not support women in their right to choose — that’s appalling to me. And I know that’s not what Florida wants. I know it in my heart.”

Fried took aim during her talk at DeSantis’ professed “freedom” agenda, including his rebuff of federal directives aimed at protecting people from COVID.

“A Harvard and Yale graduate actually doesn’t understand what the definition of freedom is,” she said.

“To him, freedom means anything and saying anything that will get him onto Fox News. But if you don’t look like him, you don’t sound like him, you don’t act like him, you’re totally screwed.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.