MIMS, Fla. — In her 44 years alive and three years as the sole statewide elected Democrat, Nikki Fried had not made it to the site where Florida’s iconic civil rights couple were blown up in their own home seven decades earlier, until a campaign swing to bolster support among Black voters brought her to the restored cottage.
She listened attentively during her tour through a room of photos and mementos, interrupting only once to correct the guide when she, in Fried’s view, inappropriately gave Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis credit for pardoning the Groveland Four, when it was technically the governor and Cabinet, of which she is a member. She posed for pictures with the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex staff and board members. She walked through the replica of the home itself next door, where mannequins of the couple drafted a letter at their dining table.
Yet even in northern Brevard County, 300 miles from the state capital where her opponent for the Democratic nomination for governor had been a fixture for two decades, Fried could not escape his shadow.
There, in a frame on the living room wall, was a 2010 note to the Moores’ daughter, Juanita, explaining that it had been an honor to help secure funding for the museum’s completion to “continue the legacy of your parents.” It was signed by Charlie Crist, who at the time had been the state’s Republican governor.
Indeed, it was as the sitting attorney general four years earlier, in his fourth statewide run in eight years, that Crist had finally announced a close to the decades-old murder investigation into the case, naming four long-dead Klansmen as the killers and calling the Christmas Day bombing “domestic terrorism.”
“Our pledge was to leave no stone unturned in this investigation,” Crist said at the 2006 news conference. “From a thorough review of 50 years of records, to interviewing over 100 individuals, to excavating the bombing site, we literally have kept that pledge.”
It was, as it turns out, a metaphor for the race itself: No matter where Nikki Fried goes in Florida, Charlie Crist has already been there.
And as the race to win the opportunity to challenge an extremely well-funded incumbent governor enters its final month, Fried may be learning what so many candidates running in the third-largest state with 10 distinct media markets have already learned: That having been there before matters. A lot.
“He’s run so many times, he’s built so many relationships,” said David Geller, president of the Miami Beach Democratic Club, as his members settled in for their monthly meeting at a Collins Avenue hotel. “Everyone has a Charlie story.”
While public polls have been infrequent and of varying reliability, they have generally shown Crist, who is 65, in his third term as a congressman from St. Petersburg, and now making his seventh statewide race, with a substantial lead. Last month, the Fried campaign released an internal poll suggesting that many Democratic voters, if they were told certain facts about Fried and Crist, more often than not preferred Fried.
The Crist camp countered with its own internal poll of likely Democratic voters, showing Crist ahead by 21 points.
One longtime Democratic consultant said he doesn’t know for certain if the Crist poll is right but noted, on condition of anonymity, one clue that it is: Crist barely acknowledges Fried, spending all his time criticizing DeSantis. Fried, on the other hand, spends a good chunk of her time attacking Crist.
“They’re both campaigning like it’s right,” he said.
Running As ‘Something New’
Nicole “Nikki” Fried, as might be expected, is hoping to turn Crist’s long track record as an elected official and candidate against him.
Her campaign slogan — “It’s time for something new” — reminds voters that Crist is decidedly not new, that he had been a Republican for the majority of his political career, and that he already ran for governor as a Democrat in 2014, only to lose to then-incumbent Republican Rick Scott.
She, in contrast, has only run for public office a single time, in 2018. To the surprise of many Democrats and Republicans both, the former public defender turned marijuana industry lobbyist managed a narrow win with a candidacy that focused on her view that state lawmakers were deliberately stonewalling voters who had approved a medical marijuana constitutional amendment four years earlier.
It gave Democrats only their second seat on the Cabinet since it was streamlined from six positions down to three in 2002. And with the loss of former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018, she is the now the only Democrat elected statewide currently in office.
“We believe that the people of our state, especially the Democratic Party, are looking for fresh blood, they’re looking for a fighter,” she told HuffPost. “When we are able to speak to people and get our vision across, it is a night and day comparison between the two of us. Being a life-long Democrat since I was 17 years old and allowed to register, the issues that I fight for today are the same issues that I was fighting for back in high school.”
Her fans around the state say they love that approach. “She really goes after DeSantis,” said Tina Jaramillo, a schoolteacher attending the Broward Democrats meeting at the Tamarac Community Center last month, the bass line thumping from the spin class next door. “She knows how to handle him. She knows how to push his buttons.”
But Fried’s lack of political experience prior to her agriculture commissioner race appears to be taking a toll as she runs for a much higher-profile job. Most statewide politicians have run for local offices or legislative districts previously, giving them a regional base. Crist, for example, was state senator in St. Petersburg for six years before his first statewide run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, and the Tampa Bay region has continually given him stronger support than the rest of the state.
Fried, although she is from Broward County, a huge bastion of Democratic votes, is not that much better known or popular there than the rest of the state. In Crist’s internal poll, he is running as well in South Florida as he is in Tampa Bay — a finding matched by a St. Pete Polls survey taken last month.
What’s more, while Fried boasts that she is the only Democrat to have won statewide in 2018, that victory may not be particularly predictive for coming elections.
That year was the midterm for then-President Donald Trump, which energized Democrats everywhere. It allowed Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum, who at the time was under FBI investigation for public corruption, to come within 33,000 votes of DeSantis, then a congressman from the Jacksonville area.
That same electorate chose Fried over former state representative Matt Caldwell, but her margin of victory was just 6,753 votes – and in the end she received 43,232 fewer votes in her election than DeSantis did in his.
Crist’s loss in 2014, in comparison, took place during then-President Barack Obama’s second midterm, a Republican-wave election. What’s more, it was a narrow loss, with Crist coming within 65,000 votes of beating Scott, the incumbent Republican.
Wooing The Black Vote
It was the late summer of 2006, the final weeks before the Republican primary to succeed term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush, and Charlie Crist stood at the bottom of a bridge in the Panhandle, holding a sign and waving to drivers as they returned to the mainland from beachside.
One after another, cars and SUVs and pickups would pass by Crist, honking as he waved, until a pickup truck flying a Confederate flag rolled down off the bridge.
The driver honked. Crist did not wave.
He said nothing, but an aide smiled. “We don’t need that guy’s vote.”
In a Republican primary in a state where public school children not that many years ago were taught that the Civil War was better understood as the “War of Northern Aggression,” Crist rejected his party’s Southern Strategy playbook and pushed policies that in some cases were more progressive than those backed by his eventual Democratic opponent.
Crist proposed aggressive climate-change rules, pushing utilities away from coal and toward natural gas and renewables. He vowed to crack down on property insurers’ rate hikes, and open up the state-run insurer of last resort to more Floridians. But most striking of all were his moves to win over African American support, including a vow to more rapidly restore voting rights to felons after they had completed their sentence.
The outreach to the Black community, which actually began years earlier in his first successful statewide campaign in 2000, for education commissioner, paid off on election night 2006, with Crist winning a full 18% of the African American vote. In contrast, Jeb Bush had received only 6% in 1994, when he lost, and 11% in 1998, when he won.
Sixteen years later, Crist, now a Democrat, is not taking that support for granted. On a recent swing through northeast Florida coinciding with the Juneteenth weekend, Crist hit festivals in three different cities on Saturday and visited three Black churches for services on Sunday.
He knows to drop in a “God is good” to make a point, and to wait for the “all the time,” response, and makes sure to explain to the congregants that his last name, originally Christodoulos before his immigrant grandfather shortened it, means “disciple of Christ” in Greek.
At St. Paul AME Church in Jacksonville, he was met at the entrance by volunteer Ethel Brooks. “We know what you did as governor,” she told him, and explained later: “I think he did Florida well.”
And at the Juneteenth celebration at Palatka High School — where Crist asked the hosts to play Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and then danced a few measures with one of the emcees, a former Jacksonville Jaguars cheerleader — he was constantly stopped by supporters who wanted selfies with him.
Ty Fields, 46, approached him with a challenge: “I’m going to test your memory.” He then explained that he met him a few years earlier in St. Petersburg at a voting rights rally, and thanked him for helping get his voting rights back after his release from prison. “I ended up meeting you, and we took a picture.”
With African Americans making up nearly 30% of the Democratic primary electorate in Florida, Fried also has been working hard to woo them. The visit to the Harry and Harriette Moore museum was followed by a campaign visit to a Black-owned business in South Florida — a marijuana dispensary in West Palm Beach.
She said a Fried administration would make sure that legalized marijuana brings jobs and tax revenue to poor communities, too. “Putting dispensaries in minority communities, because they’re not there right now,” she said, adding that doing so would help address past wrongs. “We know that the war on drugs hurt Black and brown disproportionately.”
Crist’s decadeslong connection with Black voters, though, might well be too much for Fried to overcome. In the June St. Pete Polls survey of the race that found Crist leading overall 49-24, he was leading 51-17 among Black voters. The Crist internal poll had a smaller, but still enormous, margin: 58 percent to 31.
“Charlie has two-to-one support from the Black community, and in a Florida Democratic primary that means you’re winning big,” said Joshua Karp, a Crist campaign senior adviser.
Crist’s Anti-Abortion Justices
For all his breaks from Republican orthodoxy, though, there was one truly conservative thing Crist did do as a Republican governor which may now come back to haunt him as he runs for the Democratic nomination.
Among the justices that Crist put on the Florida Supreme Court in his four years were Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, both of whom are still on the court and both of whom are now and were known then as extremely conservative, including on abortion matters.
With the reversal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court last month, the question of abortion rights in the state will be determined by Florida’s highest court, which soon will have before it a new law approved by the Republican legislature and DeSantis that bans abortion after 15 weeks.
The Florida court has previously struck down abortion restrictions based on the state constitution’s explicit right to privacy, but — abortion rights advocates, Fried among them, warn — the current court could easily break from that precedent.
“His decision when he was governor of the state is going to have drastic implications on our freedoms today,” Fried said at a news conference in front of the Florida Supreme Court building after the decision reversing Roe was released. She added that his inability to take responsibility for those choices “disqualifies” him from being the Democratic nominee.
Crist, who for years has said that while he personally opposes abortion, he does not feel it appropriate to impose that view on others, nevertheless said as he ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2006 that he would support a ban on abortion if it included exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.
Upon his election, however, he never pushed for such a ban, and today he points out that as governor he vetoed a bill sent to him that would have forced women seeking an abortion to not only first get an ultrasound, but also to pay for it.
“I’m the only one in this race to have vetoed a bill like that,” he said.
He defended his Supreme Court appointments as highly qualified, and said he had believed that abortion rights in Florida would not be at risk because of the privacy language in the state’s constitution which had been relied upon in previous abortion cases. “Let’s hope the respect for Florida’s constitution and, in the particular, the privacy clause is intact,” he said, but acknowledged that he did not know how Canady and Polston would rule. “I guess we’ll find out.”
The $118 Million DeSantis Juggernaut
Whichever of the two wins the Democratic nomination on Aug. 23 must then face DeSantis in November, who began raising big money since he took office in 2019 and has not stopped.
Crist at the start of this month had raised a total of $11 million, with just over half of that available to spend. Fried had raised $7 million and had $3.6 million on hand. Both will likely spend all they raise in the coming weeks battling each other, with the winner emerging from the primary.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has raised $131 million since taking office, and has $118 million available to use. He faces no primary opponent, and polling shows that Floridians generally approve of his performance as governor.
“Well, anything’s possible,” said the Democratic strategist who believes Crist is in good position to win the primary. “But I’d say right now there’s a one-in-a-100 chance of beating DeSantis.”
Democratic activists, though, say that DeSantis’ governing style and constant moves to rile up his conservative base will play to their advantage. On top of that is the general expectation that he intends to run for president in 2024 — meaning that if he wins a second term as governor, he will immediately begin running for the White House.
While avid Crist and Fried supporters care deeply about which one will be the nominee, Democratic voters more generally appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to defeat DeSantis in November.
“There’s a lot of passion surrounding the governor’s race on the Democratic side,” said Geller, head of the Miami Beach Democrats. “I think our club is evenly split, if I had to guess.”
Mike Eidson, a 42-year-old activist at the Palatka Juneteenth festival working to rid the town of memorials honoring Confederate leaders, said his top priority is denying DeSantis a second term, and so is basing his choice in the primary on who is more likely to accomplish that.
“Fried is younger and newer to politics, and sometimes they have a better chance of winning,” he said, but added that he likes both Fried and Crist and would have no problem if either were governor.
Republican consultants, though, predict it will be near impossible for either of them to beat DeSantis.
“Polls, policy and resource advantage in money and enthusiasm say: no chance. We aren’t arguing outcome, we are measuring margin,” said David Johnson, a former executive director of the state party.
Yet according to one former top Republican, Democrats do have one chance of beating DeSantis: If former President Donald Trump, who also wants to run for president in 2024 despite the multiple investigations into his Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt, decides to sabotage him.
“He is as sure a thing as Hillary Clinton was against Donald Trump in 2016,” said Mac Stipanovich, a chief of staff to former GOP governor Bob Martinez. “She was defeated by a black swan event in ’16, and it will take a black swan event to defeat DeSantis for re-election in 2022, like him being undermined or attacked by the black swan now resident at Mar-a-Lago.”
Neither Trump’s staff nor a DeSantis campaign spokesperson responded to HuffPost’s queries.
But Stipanovich said DeSantis’ polling lead and cash advantage could prove meaningless if Trump persuades enough of his followers to abandon DeSantis, who took a lead in his primary race for governor only after Trump endorsed him. “Trump willed DeSantis into existence in 2018, and he still has the power to will him into oblivion,” Stipanovich said.