Crist vs. DeSantis: What you need to know about the Florida governor’s race

DeSantis is formidable as an incumbent, but 72 days is eternity in politics

Gov. Ron DeSantis, Rep. Charlie Crist. (Associated Press)

ORLANDO, Fla. – The race for Florida governor is off and running.

Incumbent Republican Ron DeSantis faces ex-governor and Democrat Rep. Charlie Crist.

There is also a Libertarian candidate, Herbert Roos, two no-party-affiliate candidates who will be on the ballot this November and three write-in candidates.

Ask the pundits, the analysts and the forecasters out in Las Vegas and they’ll tell you the same thing — this election is Gov. DeSantis’ to lose.

The most recent poll of the DeSantis-Crist matchup, by University of North Florida, had DeSantis up 50% to 42%. A Florida Chamber of Commerce poll found similar numbers (51% to 43%).

But 72 days is an eternity in politics — anything can happen. The election is Nov. 8.

Here’s what you need to know about the race for Florida governor.

DeSantis barely won in 2018. More people like him now.

DeSantis won his election in 2018 by 32,463 votes.

Since then, the former congressman and Navy JAG officer has notched some big political wins, not to mention some public relations moves that have made him very popular with the “small government” set. This especially includes his refusal to restrict businesses or close schools completely during the COVID-19 pandemic and pushing laws against mask and vaccine mandates.

He also has launched a highly public public-health battle against the federal government, President Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci over COVID-19 and vaccine guidelines (Florida does not support vaccines for children under 5, for instance).

A lot of people support his “Free State of Florida” mantra.

Then there are the social conservatives who applaud his recent culture war moves against sexual identity expression in schools and racial-equity school curricula and workplace training, his promise to bring constitutional carry for weapons to Florida and his support of abortion restrictions.

He’s garnered so much support that he is considered a popular choice for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 against his former kingmaker, former President Donald Trump (insiders say their relationship has cooled since DeSantis cozied up to Trump in 2018).

The UNF poll mentioned earlier shows DeSantis with a 50% approval rating, down from 58% in February.

A Florida Chamber of Commerce poll, meanwhile, shows 54% of voters think DeSantis is doing a good job as governor, including 52% of no-party-affiliate voters.

All of this makes DeSantis a very solid bet to win another four-year stay in the governor’s mansion.

Look who’s back — back again

If you don’t know who Charlie Crist is, you must be new.

Crist has been a fixture of Florida politics since the 90s when, as a Republican state lawmaker, he proposed bringing back chain gangs and earned the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie.” In the 2000s, he was Florida’s education commissioner and then attorney general before becoming governor in 2006 — again, as a Republican.

But Crist stopped being a Republican in 2010 when the party would not support his run for U.S. Senate in the face of a surging Marco Rubio. He ran as an independent and came in second in a three-way race. Rubio has been a senator ever since.

Crist left the party in 2012 (though he says the party left him), joined the Democratic Party, ran against then-Gov. Rick Scott in 2014 and lost. He’s been a congressman for the St. Pete area as a Democrat ever since.

Crist’s support for Republican policies had limits even at his most popular. He caught flak for embracing President Barack Obama publicly during the Great Recession. He supported some restrictions on abortion but vetoed others. He also vetoed a plan that tied teacher pay to test scores.

Since he became a Democrat, he’s supported Democratic policies in the U.S. House a majority of the time, while styling himself as a moderate.

Crist gained the support of liberal leaders in Florida, like State Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando, and his win against primary opponent Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried was a blowout.

Candidate

Votes

%

Charlie Crist(D)
903,58060%
Nicole "Nikki" Fried(D)
534,83835%
Cadance Daniel(D)
38,1353%
Robert L. Willis(D)
36,7202%
100% of Precincts Reporting

(5,717 / 5,717)

The question is, has Crist finally gotten past the “flip-flopper” “opportunist” nicknames that have plagued him since switching parties?

Money matters

Let’s face it, the days of “Walkin’ Lawton” Chiles are long past in Florida.

A candidate trying to reach the majority of Floridians without a media campaign is likely in trouble, and media campaigns are expensive.

TV commercials alone can cost tens of thousands of dollars to get on TV, let alone produce.

DeSantis, who did not have to contend with a primary, has a war chest he’s been diligently filling with donations from across the country, in small and large amounts.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations through the Open Secrets website, DeSantis’ campaign raised $22 million for the first seven months of 2022. Meanwhile, his political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, raised $67.2 million at the same time. He’s gotten millions from hotel company owner Robert Bigelow, hedge fund CEO Ken Griffin and other Republican megadonors.

Crist, meanwhile, now has to work to refill his coffers, according to Open Secrets. Within 24 hours of winning the Democratic primary, Crist raised $1 million, according to reports.

Crist’s PAC, Friends of Charlie Crist, boasts payouts by a bevy of attorneys, realtors, construction companies, physicians, retirees and more, according to his financial records. They include people from around the country, though it looks like the biggest single donation came from the American Federation of Teachers for half a million dollars, reported on Aug. 8.

Crist may benefit from DeSantis backlash though, at least financially. For instance, California Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged $100,000 to Crist after he won the primary, and urged others to do the same.

Many on the left believe beating DeSantis will dim his prospects for president in 2024, though he has remained coy about his intentions.

Diametrically opposed

The culture wars will get a lot of play this midterms, as Republicans see a chance to push conservative policies through the state and local governments against abortion, so-called “woke” education curriculum, sexual identity education and more.

DeSantis has led the way on all of these issues, pushing the Stop WOKE Act and the Parental Rights in Education law (known by critics as “Don’t Say Gay”), restricting gender-affirming health care and supporting the 15-week abortion ban. He has also hinted at further expanding limitations on abortion.

Supporters also love DeSantis’ aggressive style of attacking those who oppose him (see Disney, Reedy Creek).

Crist has made clear he is against DeSantis on all of these issues, and moreover believes they are hurting Floridians.

Democrats are hoping abortion, in particular, can be a rallying cry, even in Florida, in November. Dems have seen an upswing in support in special elections across the country, as well as in Kansas, where voters defeated an amendment that would have cleared the way for abortion restrictions in that state.

Education is where Crist appears to be making his biggest stand so far. He’s chosen Karla Hernandez, president of the Miami-Dade teachers union, as his running mate to illustrate the point.

One of the first things Crist put out after his primary win was his education plan. He wants to declare an emergency because of the teacher shortage. Florida had around 9,000 teacher vacancies at the start of the school year. He says wants to invest in higher pay for teachers and non-instructional staff and expand health care for school employees.

While DeSantis has led the way in raising starting pay for teachers, pay for veteran teachers continues to drag the state’s average teacher pay below the national average, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education. DeSantis also recently unveiled a plan to let veterans and first responders without a college degree get a five-year teaching certificate.

Crist also says he wants to “get politics out of the classroom,” a reference to DeSantis’ pushes to change curriculum and also support like-minded candidates for local school boards.

DeSantis would also say he wants politics out of the classroom, except he claims there are schools and teachers that are indoctrinating students in anti-American values.

Affordable Florida?

But the biggest issue across the board for Floridians remains cost of living and lack of affordability.

Florida is considered one of the least affordable states for housing in the country currently. Rents have skyrocketed, as have home prices. Property insurance has become a crisis in the state that Florida lawmakers had to deal with in a special session, though homeowners still report problems and another insurance company left the state just this month. It’s causing evictions and foreclosures to go up as well.

Inflation has also squeezed the rising wages and made it harder for families.

The UNF poll found cost of living was the No. 1 issue for voters, followed by abortion and education.

Democrats have accused DeSantis of ignoring the housing crisis in the state. They’ve repeatedly called for a special session to deal with the situation, which the governor has ignored.

DeSantis has launched a plan called the Hometown Heroes Housing Program, which helps first responders, health care professionals, educators and active-duty military or veterans buy their first homes.

But housing assistance programs like Our Florida, a rental assistance program, have seen delays in getting money out to people, bringing some to the verge of eviction/foreclosure.

Crist does have experience in dealing with insurance and home affordability issues. He had to deal with both in 2007 as Florida governor. Lawmakers found ways to reform property tax and insurance programs to try and bring housing costs down, but this affordable housing issue is more complex.

For his part, Crist has pledged to fully fund the affordable housing fund known as the Sadowski Trust fund, which has been raided by the state legislature for years. He also wants to repeal a law signed by DeSantis last year that halved the fund and used the other half for sewage and climate projects.

Crist and DeSantis will also face Libertarian candidate Hector Roos, no party affiliate candidates Carmen Gimenez and Jodi Jeloudov, and write-in candidates Piotr Blass, Kyle Gibson and James Thompson in the November election.


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About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.