On this, the Democratic candidates for Florida governor agree: New restrictions on abortion in the Sunshine State and uncertainty about the future of women’s health across America have reinvigorated their voters and elevated the urgency to their effort to knock off Gov. Ron DeSantis this fall.
But the question of who is best suited to take that fight to DeSantis – seasoned Rep. Charlie Crist or Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner vying to become Florida’s first female governor – has sparked a bitter war of words between the two candidates and fueled a pricey advertising battle that has shaped the closing weeks of their race for the party’s nomination.
Democratic voters in Florida will be the final arbiters on Tuesday when the state holds its primary, one of the last of the 2022 midterm cycle. The race has come to exemplify how the changing abortion landscape following the fall of Roe v. Wade this summer is animating politics on the left and giving Democrats renewed optimism for their chances in key battlegrounds.
With a significant fundraising advantage and overwhelming support from elected Democrats, Crist seemed well positioned to capture the nomination a few months ago. Limited reliable polling has made it difficult to determine where the race stands heading into Election Day, or how much voter sentiment has shifted since the US Supreme Court determined in June that a woman’s right to an abortion is not guaranteed by the US Constitution. But the dynamics of the race have changed considerably as voters and candidates have become clear-eyed about what is at stake in November.
“I sense Nikki Fried is gaining ground,” said Brad Coker, a Florida-based pollster for Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy. “Don’t count her out. I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but if I had 100 bucks I found under a rock, I’d bet it on Nikki Fried.”
For Fried, who stumbled out of the gates as a candidate and was slow to recover, the Dobbs decision brought new purpose to her campaign, and she has carried that momentum into the home stretch. She has hammered Crist, a former Republican governor before becoming an independent and then a Democrat, over his complicated record on abortion issues. She frequently reminds voters that Crist once considered himself “pro-life” and that he appointed a pair of justices who ruled to uphold abortion restrictions.
“I have been pro-choice my entire life,” Fried said last month during the only debate of the race. “I have made sure that I’ve stood on the side of women. Charlie cannot say the same thing.”
Whether Fried’s push was too late remains to be seen. By Monday, 970,000 Democrats had already cast ballots by mail or at early voting sites (about 1.5 million Democrats voted in the 2018 primary). The barrage of criticisms, though, has penetrated enough that Crist felt the need to respond on the air. Throughout August, his campaign has spent valuable ad dollars on a defensive 15-second commercial to rebut Fried’s attacks.
“I vetoed anti-abortion legislation to protect your right to choose, and I’ve got a perfect record from NARAL and Planned Parenthood,” Crist says in the ad. “Nikki knows I fought for your right to choose. More importantly, now you do, too.”
The fall of Roe, while maligned by Democrats, has nevertheless provided much-needed tailwinds here for a party that has been floundering ever since it lost the governor’s race to DeSantis by 32,000 votes four years ago. They have watched as DeSantis has used the office to push through an aggressively conservative agenda and catapult himself into the upper stratosphere of GOP presidential contenders while amassing an unthinkable sum of money for his reelection — more than $132 million on hand as of Thursday. Along the way, Republicans for the first time surpassed Democrats in the state’s registered voters and now boast a 200,000-voter advantage.
Democratic lawmakers, in the minority in both chambers, were powerless as the legislature passed and DeSantis signed a ban on abortion after 15 weeks with no exceptions for rape and incest. The new law took effect July 1 and it remains in place amid a legal challenge.
But after the Dobbs decision, Democrats saw a flood of money coming into their races and renewed energy that manifested itself in protests throughout the state. Outrage has continued as the fallout from life after Roe materializes. And last week, the ramifications of another DeSantis-backed anti-abortion law, this one requiring parental consent for a minor to obtain an abortion, played out in public. A court determined a 16-year-old Florida girl without parents was not mature enough to decide to end her pregnancy and denied her a waiver that would have allowed her to get an abortion.
To be clear, Democrats here care most about one thing: beating DeSantis and slowing his ascent to the national stage. The back and forth between Crist and Fried over abortion, though, has come to encapsulate the dueling arguments for each other’s candidacy.
Fried’s allies hope an upset over Crist may foreshadow the ground shifting in Florida, much as the country saw earlier this month when Kansas voters rejected an amendment to strip abortion rights from the state’s constitution. They say Fried, as a woman who won four years ago when every other Democrat running statewide in Florida lost, is uniquely positioned to capture that energy.
The Dobbs decision “was definitely an inflection point,” said Kevin Cate, a top strategist for Fried. “The intensity after that happened was huge and you have people looking for someone to be their champion. It’s about meeting the moment.”
Yet much of the Democratic establishment in Florida believes otherwise. Most elected Democrats are backing Crist, the candidate who brought them within 64,000 votes as the party’s nominee for governor in 2014. The state’s largest labor groups have supported Crist over Fried as well, as have Barbara Zdravecky, the former CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, and Alex Sink, the state’s former elected chief financial officer who founded an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women who support abortion rights to run for office.
Most have said they are unbothered by Crist’s complicated history on abortion rights, focusing instead on his reliable record during his three terms in the US House of Representatives while insisting his track record working from the middle will appeal to more swing voters.
“For me, it’s not, ‘You’re a woman, you check that box, I’ll support you,’” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who will lead House Democrats in Tallahassee next year. “It’s, ‘What do you bring to the table holistically?’ To me, Charlie Crist is the best person to meet the moment.”
Perhaps most notable is that the major groups that mobilize around abortion rights have chosen to remain neutral in the race.
State Rep. Kristen Arrington, one of the few elected officials who endorsed Fried, said she will support Crist if he’s the nominee, but her fellow Democrats are underestimating Fried’s appeal as a fresher face.
“I don’t want to poopoo them. Many of them made decisions before (Dobbs),” Arrington said. “But sometimes women can be their own worst enemy and not support each other. Nothing against the men candidates because they’re great allies and we can’t do it alone, but I think it’s important to have women in leadership. For too long, we’ve had men making decisions about our bodies.”
Crist and Fried have exhausted nearly all of their resources trying to win the primary, much of it spent persuading Democratic voters over abortion. Meanwhile, DeSantis and the Florida GOP have already spent more than $10 million on digital and television ads on the incumbent governor’s reelection campaign, about twice as much as Fried and Crist have spent on airtime combined, according to an analysis of data collected by AdImpact.
Despite limited investments in Florida to date, Democrats remain hopeful that come Wednesday, regardless of the nominee, the party and its election backers will step up to help fund a campaign against DeSantis. A potentially motivating factor is that Florida, for now, remains one of the more permissive states to obtain an abortion in the South.
But some Crist supporters have privately expressed concern that the taxing fight over abortion in the primary has left the party fractured heading into a difficult general election.
“It’s a shame that in an effort to win a political office, Nikki Fried would attempt to undermine a fellow Democrat,” said Joshua Karp, a strategist for the Crist campaign. “Democrats are fired up to defend Roe at the ballot box. The only candidate who can build that coalition is Charlie Crist and that’s why so many pro-choice leaders have endorsed him.”
CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.