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Crist needs to unite Democrats and raise cash if he's to unseat DeSantis, political experts say

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist have held their first and only debate before the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Chris O'Meara/AP
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist have held their first and only debate before the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

With the candidates now set in the November governor’s race, Democrat Charlie Crist faces an uphill battle as he tries to topple Republican incumbent Ron DeSantis, according to political experts.

Crist will have to unify the Democratic Party, an effort that might have gotten a boost Tuesday night when his primary opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, called on the party to unite and elect Democrats in other races.

At the same time, with DeSantis dominating news coverage and widely viewed as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, experts say Crist must focus on abortion rights, remind voters about unpopular aspects of DeSantis’ pandemic leadership, and, most importantly, quickly raise cash.

A lot of cash.

“Crist will need to convince national Democratic donors that he has a chance to beat DeSantis --- or that they need to at least try to politically damage DeSantis now before he officially starts to run for president,” University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett said after Crist won about 60 percent of the votes in Tuesday’s primary against Fried.

DeSantis said Crist, a Pinellas County congressman and former Republican governor, will simply reflect the policies of President Joe Biden, a frequent target of DeSantis’ attacks.

“And I don't think that that's going to be something that is going to fly,” DeSantis said Tuesday morning, several hours before the polls closed.

Susan MacManus, a longtime political-science professor at the University of South Florida, said Crist needs to unify the party and better target economic issues and plans for improvement, with “more effective means of communication.”

Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political prognostication site from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, isn’t optimistic about the prospects for the Florida Democrats, who have not won a governor’s race since 1994, when Gov. Lawton Chiles was re-elected.

Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, said DeSantis “does not appear to be in any real danger as he seeks to extend the GOP’s gubernatorial winning streak there to 7.”

“We’ll see if Florida comes online at some point, but the political trendlines for Democrats in that state are bad even as it remains competitive,” Kondik added.

Crist is a known commodity in Florida politics. He was elected governor in 2006 as a Republican before making an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2010 as an independent. He became a Democrat and lost the 2014 gubernatorial race to then-Gov. Rick Scott before getting elected to Congress in 2016. Before becoming governor, he served as attorney general, education commissioner and a state senator.

DeSantis described Crist as “a guy that's been running for office for five decades, who is voting with Biden 100 percent of the time, doesn’t even show up for the job, has lost so many times.”

DeSantis also took aim at Democratic criticism of his actions, including his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think that they have opposed every decision I've made to keep this state open, to respect their rights, to save jobs, to keep kids in school, to save businesses,” DeSantis said. “If we would have done what they wanted to do, shut down the state in July of 2020, which they asked me to do, and I refused, that would have hurt millions of people in the state.”

Democrats counter that DeSantis is using the state to promote his White House ambitions through culture-war issues designed to attract GOP base voters.

Marshall Cohen, political director for the Democratic Governors Association, said DeSantis has left himself vulnerable on many fronts since narrowly defeating Democrat Andrew Gillum in 2018, such as not adequately addressing rising insurance and housing costs.

Cohen said DeSantis’ White House ambitions have made him a “huge villain” nationally outside the MAGA crowd that has propelled former President Donald Trump and numerous other Republicans. Democrats hope DeSantis has taken things too far for voters in the middle.

Topics they could try to exploit could include DeSantis’ efforts to punish Walt Disney Co. for opposing what DeSantis critics call the “don’t say gay” law; downplaying the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines; and removing twice-elected Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren for saying he didn’t plan to prosecute people under a new abortion law.

Democrats hope such issues could help Crist raise money nationally to offset DeSantis’ huge financial advantage.

“DeSantis was not a known figure in 2018. And now he is this great bogeyman that I think we're going to be able to use to raise money,” Cohen said.

Heading into the final weekend before the primary, Crist had spent all but about $650,000 from his political committee, Friends of Charlie Crist, and $800,000 from his personal campaign account.

Without a primary opponent, DeSantis spent recent weeks appearing at political events across the country and promoting school board candidates in Florida. He went into the weekend with about $10 million in his campaign account and about $122 million in his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.

Expect DeSantis and other Republicans to continue using messages that he has already shown in early campaign ads.

On Tuesday night, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel outlined the GOP ticket in Florida as being “committed to keeping Florida the state for freedom and opportunity, all the while standing up to the Democrats’ woke, anti-family agenda.”

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Jim Turner - News Service of Florida
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