MIAMI (AP) — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stands ready to learn the identity of his opponent in the general election on Tuesday, as Democrats choose between a man who has spent a lifetime in politics — largely as a Republican — and a woman who presents herself as “something new” while she seeks the energy of her resurgent base of the party.
The Democratic Establishment is largely behind Charlie Crist, a 66-year-old Democratic congressman who served as the state’s Republican governor more than a decade ago. Crist now runs as a moderate Democrat and faces 44-year-old Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Friedwho hopes to become the state’s first female governor while campaigning for abortion rights.
The race is ultimately a debate over who is best positioned to defeat DeSantis, who came out of a narrow victory four years ago to become one of the most prominent Republicans in politics. His relatively light touch with the pandemic and his eagerness to lean on divisions over race, gender, and LGBTQ rights have resonated with many Republican voters who see DeSantis as a natural heir to former President Donald Trump..
His reelection bid is widely believed to herald a presidential run in 2024, adding to a sense of urgency among Democrats to water down his turnout now.
“I’ve been in the trenches. I hired DeSantis,” Fried told The Associated Press. DeSantis “will not have 2024 because he will not have 2022. We are going to defeat him in November and we are going to kill all his ambitions to become president of the United States.”
Crist described DeSantis in an interview as a threat to democracy.
“He is the opposite of freedom. He is an autocrat. He is a demagogue. And I think people are tired of him,” Crist said of the incumbent Republican governor, noting that earlier this year, DeSantis admonished a group of high school students for wearing face masks during an indoor press conference. “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? He’s not the boss.”
DeSantis and Fried spent several hours together Tuesday morning during a cabinet meeting at the Tallahassee state building. They kept things cordial throughout the hour-long event, which left Fried chairs away from the governor when they heard reports from agency heads about state finances, contracts and other matters.
DeSantis shook Fried’s hand at the end of the meeting and said “good luck” to her before criticizing her campaign and predicting her loss in brief comments to reporters.
“I think you know she had the chance as the only Democrat elected statewide to exercise some leadership and maybe get some stuff done and instead she used her time to smear me on a daily basis , that’s all she does,” DeSantis said of Fried.
After the meeting, Fried told reporters she thought the governor had planned the meeting as a way to sideline her on her last day of campaigning.
“Of course it’s no coincidence,” she said of the meeting’s timing. “I think he’s afraid I’ll win tonight, so he’s doing everything he can to keep me off the campaign trail today.”
The Florida contest concludes the busiest stretch of primaries this year. Republicans from Pennsylvania to Arizona have backed contenders who have embraced Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen, a claim that was roundly rejected by election officials, the former president’s attorney general and judges he has appointed.
And for the most part, the Democrats have avoided brutal primary fights. That could be tested on Tuesday, though, as voters in New York participate in congressional primaries with two powerful Democratic committee chairs, Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, competing for the same seat and other incumbent officials fending off challenges from the left.
Democrats are entering the final weeks before the midterm elections with a sense of cautious optimism, hoping the Supreme Court decision will overturn a woman’s constitutional right to abortion will strengthen the party’s base. But Democrats still face huge headwinds, including economic uncertainty and the historic reality that most parties lose seats in the first midterm after winning the White House.
The dynamics are particularly challenging for Democrats in Florida, one of the most politically divided states in the US. The 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 is the only Democrat in the entire office. And Republicans have no primary competition for four of those five positions — governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and chief financial officer — all of which are held by incumbent GOPs.
Democrats hope US Representative Val Demingsfacing a little-known candidate in her Senate primary on Tuesday, could dethrone the state’s senior senator, Republican Marco Rubio., this fall. But for now, the party’s national leadership is prioritizing competitive Senate games in other states, including neighboring Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania.
In Florida governor’s race, the Supreme Court’s abortion decision has animated the final weeks of the Democratic primary.
Fried has promoted himself as the only real proponent of abortion rights in the race, taking advantage of Crist’s appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices when he was governor.
The conservative court will soon decide whether the Republican-backed state law banning abortion after 15 weeks is constitutional. Florida’s new abortion law is in effect, with exceptions if the procedure is necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman, to avoid serious injury, or if the fetus has a fatal abnormality. It does not allow exemptions in cases of rape, incest or human trafficking.
Crist insisted he’s “for choice” and highlighted a bill he rejected as governor in 2010 that would require women who wanted to have a first-trimester abortion to get and pay for an ultrasound exam. .
“It’s a woman’s right to choose,” Crist told the AP. “My record is crystal clear. And for my opponent to try to cloud that is unscrupulous, dishonest and unwise.”
Tuesday’s election is the first since the creation of DeSantis’ controversial new electoral police unit began investigating allegations of voter fraud and other election crimes. Last week, the Office of Election Crimes and Security made what DeSantis called his opening salvo in such cases, announcing charges against 20 people for illegal voting in 2020 after convictions for murder or sex crimes. More than 11 million Florida voters voted in the 2020 election.
The election police unit was formed at the behest of the governor as he sought to tackle allegations of voter fraud that have become a major Republican concern after Trump falsely claimed his reelection was stolen. Voting rights groups and Democrats have repeatedly argued that the governor will use the police unit as a political tool to advance his position in the GOP as he seeks re-election and opportunities for a possible presidential bid in 2024.
Voter fraud is rare, usually occurs in isolated cases and is generally detected. An AP investigation into the 2020 presidential election found fewer than 475 potential voter fraud cases out of 25.5 million ballots cast in the six states where Trump and his allies contested his loss to Democratic President Joe Biden.
DeSantis previously praised Florida for making the 2020 election run smoothly.
Peoples reported from Washington, Farrington from Tallahassee. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee and Marc Levy in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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