Fifteen minutes into a recent Sunday service, a man in a trim pinstriped suit with coiffed white hair and a blue disposable mask strolled to the front row of The Fountain church and began nodding along to a live and loud contemporary gospel band.
“Is that Charlie Crist?” Virginia McNair, a local retiree, whispered from a few rows back at this predominantly Black church. “My favorite.”
It was Charlie Crist — that instantly recognizable, enduring enigma of Florida politics — in his element: campaigning. At age 65, Crist, currently serving his third term in the US House, is running for governor, a job he first won in 2006 as a Republican, left after losing a 2010 US Senate race as an independent, and failed to win back in 2014 as a Democrat. And he’s doing it the only way he knows how: by trying to shake every hand in the state. In 36 hours, he attended the Sunday service, spoke to parents of children killed by gun violence, huddled with Nicaraguan refugees, lunched with Haitian American Democrats and toured Cuban American businesses in Little Havana with his new fiancée.
Democrats in Florida, entirely shut out of state government for more than two decades, are desperate for power to slow the state’s rightward lurch, but they face a fundraising juggernaut and rising GOP star in Gov. Ron DeSantis. Meanwhile, the country is souring on President Joe Biden, and some Democratic candidates are distancing themselves from their standard-bearer heading into the midterm elections.
Crist, though, is not just embracing Biden, he is channeling the President’s campaign playbook. Like Biden in 2020, he’s running on reestablishing civility, a bet that enough independent and moderate GOP voters are exhausted by the divisive politics of the incumbent Republican administration. Crist is playing up his bipartisan background — at times, even leaning into his Republican roots — in hopes voters will rally around a familiar face with a track record of working across the aisle.
A year ago, Crist’s entrance into the race was met with a sigh from many state Democrats ready for younger blood and fresh faces. But as mail ballots for the August 23 primary are sent out in many Florida counties, party forces have coalesced around Crist’s strategy. With about five weeks left before the primary, Crist has built a solid fundraising advantage and has endorsements from more than 100 elected Democratic officials and the backing of labor unions and progressive leaders alike.
Crist on Thursday released his first statewide ad of the campaign focused on DeSantis — not his main primary opponent, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. In another sign Crist is already readying for the general election, his campaign has made an eight-figure reservation of airtime for the fall, AWN has learned.
“Whoever has the best chance is who we have to nominate,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat and LGBT leader who endorsed Crist last month. “The stakes are just too high.”
Biden framed the 2020 race as a “battle for the soul of America.” Crist, who has mentioned the Golden Rule at campaign stops for more than a decade, framed the race as “not right versus left, it’s right versus wrong.”
“There’s a similarity, of course,” Crist told AWN. “Good experience, caring heart — I think people are hungry for that.”
“But I’m a Floridian,” he added. “And, God bless the President, but he’s from Delaware.”
Thomas Kennedy, a Miami activist and Democratic National Committee member known for disrupting DeSantis events, said he thinks Crist is a good foil for DeSantis, a conservative favorite who has brought former President Donald Trump’s confrontational style to Tallahassee.
AWN”People are tired of the toxicity and partisanship,” Kennedy said at the event where Crist vowed to help Nicaraguan immigrants gain temporary protected states to remain in the US. “There’s so much meanness in the state right now. He’s similar to Biden.”
Not everyone is on board. Fried, the lone Democrat in statewide elected office, has built her campaign around the promise “Something new.” Her allies are quick to point out that Crist as the Democratic nominee in 2014 couldn’t beat then-Gov. Rick Scott and that though Biden’s strategy proved successful in his 2020 race, he lost Florida to Trump by a healthy margin. Fried, meanwhile, won office four years ago in a cycle that saw all other Democrats running statewide lose.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome, and our party has a history of that insanity,” said Evan Ross, a Democratic consultant and Fried supporter with deep ties to South Florida’s large Jewish community. “Charlie Crist would be the pinnacle of it. If we’re crazy enough to nominate him, I think it will be one of our worst losses in state history.”
Crist dismissed 2014 as a bad year for Democrats everywhere. He noted that he lost the race by less than 1 percentage point and has since outperformed the top of the Democratic ticket three times en route to winning his purple-hued House seat in the Tampa Bay area. Crist’s advisers have also vowed a robust campaign by Democrats this year, unlike 2020 when Democrats acknowledge Biden was more focused on other battleground states.
Asked what he had learned from his last statewide defeat, Crist responded: “Go to north Florida more.”
But even some Crist supporters question if his brand of politics can win a head-to-head battle against DeSantis, who is seeking a blowout victory to bolster his resume before a possible 2024 run for president.
“All of Charlie’s success was by being nice. And that works until it doesn’t. The Republicans, they don’t play around,” said John Morgan, an Orlando lawyer and longtime friend of Crist. “There’s not a mean bone in Charlie’s body. DeSantis is a brawler with brass knuckles in one hand and a switchblade in the other.”