Charlie Crist exuded a soft confidence when he burst into the room earlier this month, a conference hall in a teacher’s trade in downtown Tampa, Florida.
He may be facing a primary to be the Democratic nominee in the next gubernatorial election, but Crist’s focus seems to be on the general as early as November — and far-right Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, whom he hopes to oust.
“He’s the most arrogant governor I’ve ever seen in my life,” Crist said to the assembled teachers, who nodded in agreement. “It’s shocking, really. Enough is enough.”
As key voters in the state cast their ballots today, polls predict Crist, a Florida political mainstay, is likely to win by a significant margin over his closest Democratic opponent, state agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried.
The 66-year-old has headed the entire gamut of political office in the state, from the Republican governor and attorney general to a sitting Democratic congressman. Crist memorably joined the Democratic party in 2012, citing an extremist takeover of the Republican party.
Now a political centrist and one of the first in Congress to approve Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential candidacy, he finds himself increasingly baffled by the state of his former party.
“The leadership of the current Republican party is gone. There’s no leadership,” he said. “It’s swinging from one culture war to another, attacking the LGBTQ community, attacking African American voters, attacking women and the right to choose.”
A day before Crist sat down with the Guardian, DeSantis suspended and effectively fired a Democratic prosecutor in the state for refusing to enforce Florida’s new abortion law banning the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The move was described as an extremist overstepping of executive power, and Crist, a mild-mannered man who chooses his words carefully, likened DeSantis to a dictator.
“I’m not one to use such strong words unless they’re true. And in this case it’s true,” Crist said. “We need to realize what this man is doing. He wants to be president of the United States and he’s using Florida as his testing ground to do that.
“He’s a barbarian, wannabe dictator.”
It is widely believed that DeSantis is considering running for president in 2024 and has raised more than $160 million since 2019. Meanwhile, his tenure has sparked a wave of far-right legislation across the state — from laws banning the discussion of gender and sexual identity in classrooms, to banning the teaching of critical race theory, to a sweeping voter suppression bill.
DeSantis’ tenure and Donald Trump’s 2020 election victory in Florida, in which he increased his margin from 2016, point to a growing right-wing move in Florida, which has long been considered America’s premier swing state.
No Democratic presidential candidate has won Florida since 2012, leading many observers to argue that the state is losing its purple status — a term meaning a swing state, one that can change from Republican to Democrat and vice versa.
Crist, predictably, claims the opposite, pointing to the 2018 election in which DeSantis took the governor’s mansion by a razor-thin margin of 0.4.
But whatever the state’s current political stance, whoever gets the nod to face DeSantis in November is likely to endure a ferocious election cycle. While Crist’s status as a veteran political operator in Florida is likely to earn him the party’s nomination, it has also been used by Fried as a tool of attack.
In particular, Fried characterizes his abortion record as inconsistent, pointing to his appointment of three state Supreme Court justices to rule on Florida’s new law. Crist appointed the state’s chief justice, a former anti-abortion politician named Charles Canady, acknowledging it’s a decision he’ll regret if the law is enforced.
When asked why a Republican candidate who once occupied the governor’s mansion, and who has been such a familiar face for so long, could stand a chance against a rising Republican star, Crist returns. to values.
“I think we need help, and a better future. My parents raised me the way they did, and I offer that decency to my state,” he said. “I know that most Floridians are good, decent people.”