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Crist cruises to primary victory in Florida, but Democrats are 'fatalistic' about defeating DeSantis

From DeSantis' standing in the polls to GOP voter registration advantages, Crist, the projected winner of the Democratic primary for governor, faces long odds in November.

Rep. Charlie Crist cruised to a primary victory over state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in Florida on Tuesday night, NBC News projects, answering the one big question Democrats have fretted about for months: Who will be the underdog to face popular Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis?

Crist had 59.2% of the vote to Fried's 35.4% at 8:12 p.m. ET, with 90% of the vote in, according to NBC News.

Heading into Election Day, few Democratic insiders and political observers gave Crist or Fried much of a chance in November, citing every recent public poll showing DeSantis leading Crist.

As DeSantis’ historic $140 million re-election war chest grows by the day, national Democrats have signaled they won’t invest in Florida as heavily as in the past. The state’s growing Hispanic electorate has been shifting rightward since 2018. And, for the first time ever, there are now more registered Florida Republicans than Democrats — a key indicator of voter intensity.

“‘Fatalistic’ is probably the best word to describe Democrats’ mood,” said Sean Phillippi, a Florida Democratic data scientist who voted for Crist.

Asked whether he had any hope of Democrats’ winning, Phillippi responded: “For statewide elections? God, no. … The voter registration information is very telling and very predictive. You can’t write the story of how Charlie Crist beats Ron DeSantis unless there’s a major, major scandal none of us knows about right now or where Democrats register hundreds of thousands of new voters.”

Phillippi’s sentiment was unanimously shared by more than 20 top Democratic consultants, lawmakers and organizers in the state who supported Crist or Fried and spoke for this article. Many spoke on condition of anonymity to freely express their pessimism about the 2022 elections, made all the more gloomy by President Joe Biden’s still-sagging poll numbers.

Five of the Democratic sources said that consultants for Crist and Fried privately confided to others that they just wanted to keep the race close against DeSantis and that they didn't believe either would have a realistic shot in November, barring an unexpected turn of events.

Still, some Democrats hold out hope that Rep. Val Demings could topple Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, producing a rare split ticket, or that national donors could swoop in and invest huge sums to stop DeSantis now, rather than face the prospect that the pugilistic governor, who is 43 years old, will square off against Biden in 2024 — if both decide to run for president. Biden will be 81 by Election Day 2024.

“All the indications are that big national money isn’t coming the way it has in the past,” said Screven Watson, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

“We’re battered, bruised and broke. The three Bs,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s a feeling of predestination. Democrats have given up here, and national donors don’t see this as a good investment when the money is much better spent on Senate races in cheaper states like Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia. Based on the numbers — Biden’s polling and DeSantis’ war chest — there’s a feeling it’s inevitable.”

Image: Democratic candidate for governor Nikki Fried visits the Versaille restaurant on Aug. 22, 2022 in Miami.
Nikki Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor, visits the Versailles restaurant in Miami on Monday.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Watson said the widespread sense of near-certain doom in the governor’s race is more palpable now than it even was 20 years ago, when Gov. Jeb Bush beat Democrat Bill McBride for re-election by a historic margin, 13 percentage points.

Even Crist has implicitly acknowledged he’s running a losing campaign by promising to run the way Biden did in 2020, when he lost Florida by 3.3 percentage points to President Donald Trump, the biggest presidential victory margin in the state since 2004.

A Crist adviser, acknowledging the long odds, grimly chuckled in summing up the campaign this way: “It’s the Powerball election. There’s still a chance!”

The chances of winning the Powerball jackpot: 1 in about 292.2 million.

Still, Crist supporters maintain that it could be worse and that Fried ran a train wreck of a campaign that found its stride only in the spring. By then, Crist had begun to sew up institutional donors and was able to mine his deep connections inside and outside the state.

Crist also had superior name recognition, earned after multiple statewide campaigns and offices held over the years: state education commissioner, attorney general and governor, a post he won in 2006 — as a Republican.

Initially popular, Crist decided not to run for re-election in 2010 and instead campaigned for the Senate against Rubio, who harnessed tea party resentment of Crist’s embrace of Democratic President Barack Obama to drum him out of the GOP primary. Crist then ran as an independent and lost.

In 2014, Crist switched parties and ran as a Democrat for governor against his successor, Gov. Rick Scott, who also defeated him. It was Crist’s third statewide loss (his first defeat was a long-shot Senate bid in 1998, when he was a Republican state senator), and he then ran for a congressional seat and won in 2016.

“Crist has never explained why he keeps trying to get his old job back as governor when he left it in the first place,” said Brad Coker, the president of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, dismissing the idea of Crist’s winning more Republican voters than the average Democrat.

“There’s going to be no extra crossover vote. This notion Crist has some special appeal across party lines is just laughable,” Coker said. “Republicans have so much ammunition to fire at Charlie Crist and DeSantis has so much money to do it that I think they’re going to annihilate him.”

Coker hasn’t surveyed the race since February, when his poll showed DeSantis beating Crist by 51% to 43%. He said that he hasn’t polled the state as much as in previous years because the Democratic primary hasn’t been competitive but that he still believes “Fried would have been a stronger general election candidate” because she’s a woman in a year when abortion rights have particular salience, compared to Crist, who has had a mixed record on the issue.

But Fried failed to raise the money, earn the endorsements or build the party coalitions needed for a campaign for governor — even though she is the only Democratic statewide elected official and the only one to win in 2018, when DeSantis was also elected.

If Fried’s loss Tuesday is followed by November losses for Crist and the three little-known and underfunded Democratic candidates for attorney general, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer — all of whom face better-known and better-financed Republican incumbents — then Inauguration Day 2023 would mark the first time Democrats held no statewide elected seats since Reconstruction.

DeSantis has steadily consolidated power since he barely won in 2018 against Democrat Andrew Gillum, who had promised to build the Democratic Party and register and re-engage 1 million new voters. Instead, Gillum’s political career collapsed in a tawdry scene in an upscale South Beach hotel with a male escort who overdosed on drugs in 2020. Two months ago, Gillum was indicted on unrelated federal corruption charges.

DeSantis’ political fortunes were inversely proportional to Gillum’s.

The governor’s Covid response — his defiance of experts, his insistence on opening the state early and his fights with the mainstream news media — made him a Republican heartthrob nationally just as Trump was entering his darkest period after a mob ransacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Since then, DeSantis’ nationwide profile has grown in the GOP as he wages and wins culture wars over race, gender and sexual orientation.

But after he signed new abortion restrictions with no exceptions for rape or incest, DeSantis has repeatedly dodged questions about whether he will push for even tougher laws now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade.

DeSantis had no primary opponent, but he inserted himself into Tuesday's elections in a unique way for a Florida governor: he endorsed 30 school board candidates across the state. As of 10:20 p.m., only five were losing, according to a review of county supervisor data.

Rod Smith, a former chair of the Florida Democratic Party who supports Crist, said DeSantis is continuing to move so far right with an eye on a 2024 presidential bid that it could cost him the center, and therefore the state.

“I talk to Republicans all the time concerned about the drift,” Smith said. “Charlie is our best shot. He represents someone independents and Republicans who are not too far right could find comfort with. Everyone recognizes it’s difficult to unseat an incumbent governor in this state.”

Keith Frederick, a Democratic pollster who worked on Fried’s successful 2018 campaign, said he’s polling a smattering of local contests in Florida and has seen no marked improvement in Democrats’ chances, although they’re rebounding after “an awful spring and early summer.”

Frederick said he’s not sure whether Democrats will see the same positive shift in Florida, because “DeSantis is just rolling.”

“I can see a world where Demings squeaks through [in the Senate race] but our nominee for governor gets killed,” he said.

Matt Isbell, a Democrat who is one of the state’s top data gurus, was similarly downcast about Crist’s chances.

“It’s a total long shot. It’s a long shot,” he said. “I would rank this election as likely R. For us to win, it requires DeSantis to overplay his hand, Crist to run a near-perfect campaign, national groups to get heavily involved, as well. So there’s a lot. It’s a lot. It’s not Wyoming. But it’s also not a toss-up.”