By Zac Anderson and John Kennedy, Sarasota Herald Tribune, May 4, 2021
Nearly three decades after first winning elected office as a Republican, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist took the next big step Tuesday in his long and unusual political career by announcing a second bid for governor as a Democrat.
Crist made the announcement on Twitter Tuesday morning an advance of campaign kickoff event in his hometown of St. Petersburg, becoming the first Democrat to jump into what is expected to be a crowded contest to win the right to take on Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Florida should be a place where hard work is rewarded, justice is equal, and opportunity is right in front of you,” Crist tweeted. “That’s a Florida for all — and that’s why I’m running for Governor.”
Crist was wildly successful in Republican politics — serving as a state senator, education commissioner, attorney general and governor — before it all came crashing down in 2010 when he left the party rather than lose a GOP primary against Marco Rubio for a U.S. Senate seat.
Since then Crist has reinvented himself as a Democrat, losing a governor’s race with his new party before winning three congressional races.
Crist’s transformation left many Republicans bitter and eager to pillory him as an unprincipled political shapeshifter who only cared about power.
Democrats largely embraced Crist, though, nominating him for governor in 2014 and sending him to Congress in 2016, where he has served ever since. In doing so they overlooked some of his more conservative positions, including a tough-on-crime past that earned him the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie.”
Yet Crist’s path to prominence in Democratic circles was aided by a lack of competition, and it’s not clear how his record will hold up in a highly competitive Democratic primary, something Crist hasn’t faced before.
As governor, Crist was viewed as moderate Republican with a populist edge, supporting clean energy initiatives and making it easier for felons to get their voting rights restored. He continued that moderate streak as a Democrat, joining the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of centrist Democrats in Congress.
Crist backed a fellow moderate for president, getting behind Joe Biden early in the 2020 Democratic primary. His lane in the 2022 Democratic primary likely will be similar to Biden’s in 2020, said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett.
“I kind of look at him as a candidate in the mold of a slightly younger Joe Biden,” Jewett said. “If Florida Democrats decided to rally around Charlie Crist, it would be analogous to rallying around the moderate candidate who doesn’t scare off independents.”
The Democratic Party has moved to the left, though, and progressives hold considerable sway. Liberal voters helped propel Andrew Gillum, the most liberal candidate in the field, to victory in Florida’s 2018 Democratic primary for governor.
Crist’s record could hurt him with these voters. While he has changed his positions, Crist once opposed gay couples adopting, supported forcing a woman to get an ultrasound before an abortion, was against the Affordable Care Act and made favorable comments about offshore oil drilling.
“I’m about as conservative as you can get,” Crist said in one video clip that was used against him by the Democrat running for U.S. Senate in 2010.
If Crist faces Democratic opponents in the governor’s race they may use the same line of attack, arguing he is not progressive enough.
A party that prides itself on diversity may also be skeptical of nominating another older white man. Crist is 64.
Yet Biden faced many of the same obstacles and overcame them because enough Democrats thought he had the best chance of knocking off former President Donald Trump, whom they loathed. DeSantis now engenders similar feelings among Democrats, who again could be receptive to an electability argument.
Crist also has a strong record with Black voters, who were instrumental in Biden’s Democratic primary victory.
In addition to making it easier for people to get voting rights restored, Crist appointed a Black judge to the Florida Supreme Court and reopened a high-profile civil rights case in Central Florida, Jewett noted.
Other attributes that have helped Crist over the years are his strong fundraising and his upbeat demeanor, which has helped him connect with voters and made him a formidable retail politician.
“Charlie Crist’s brand of populism was a sunny, optimistic we can move forward together ideology and that should help him,” Jewett said.
Crist also is likely to be the best-known candidate of any Democrat in the field. First elected to a state Senate seat in 1992, he won statewide office three times and his name was on a statewide ballot three other times.
“What Charlie Crist brings is experience…he brings name recognition…from that perspective, he has some advantages over some other candidates,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa. “But we are yet to see what the field is going to be.”
House Democratic co-leader Evan Jenne of Dania Beach said Crist “really brings name ID.”
“He brings a level of familiarity and comfort that he does know the job, what it takes,” Jenne said, describing Crist as a “very tough out” and “maybe a candidate who can actually win.”
It has been a decade since Crist served as governor and seven years since he last ran statewide, though. Many people have moved to Florida since then.
There are 2.5 million more registered voters now than there were in 2014, when Crist lost to former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator. And there are 4.2 million more Florida voters than the last time Crist won a statewide race – as a Republican winning the Governor’s Mansion in 2006, a more than 40% increase in the voting population.
Crist’s announcement should kick start the governor’s race. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is a likely candidate, U.S. Rep. Val Demings also is contemplating running and other Democrats have been floated as potential candidates, including multiple state lawmakers.
In 2018 Gillum was able to win a five-way primary with 34.4% of the vote. Gwen Graham, the most prominent moderate in the race, fell short when the three other candidates siphoned off a third of the vote.
Crist’s prospects will depend, in part, on who else gets into the race. There’s plenty of reason to believe he will be competitive, though.
“I guess he’s got as much of a shot as anyone else on the Democratic side,” Jewett said.