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Friday February 3rd, 2023 2:54AM

DeSantis rival to emerge from high-stakes Florida primary

By The Associated Press
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MIAMI (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is poised to learn the identity of his general election opponent on Tuesday as Democrats choose between a man who spent a lifetime in politics — much of it as a Republican — and a woman casting herself as “something new” as she seeks the energy of her party's resurgent base.

The Democratic establishment has largely lined up behind Charlie Crist, a 66-year-old Democratic congressman who served as the state's Republican governor more than a decade ago. Running now as a moderate Democrat, Crist is facing 44-year-old Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who hopes to become the state’s first female governor while leaning into the fight for abortion rights.

The race is ultimately a debate over who is best-positioned to defeat DeSantis, who emerged from a narrow victory four years ago to become one of the most prominent Republicans in politics. His relatively light touch handling the pandemic and his eagerness to lean into divides over race, gender and LGBTQ rights have resonated with many Republican voters who see DeSantis as a natural heir to former President Donald Trump.

His reelection effort is widely assumed to be a precursor to a presidential run in 2024, adding to a sense of urgency among Democrats to blunt his rise now.

“I have been in the trenches. I have taken on DeSantis," Fried told The Associated Press. DeSantis “won’t have a 2024 because he won’t have a 2022. We are going to beat him in November, and we are going to kill all of his aspirations to run for president of the United States."

Crist, in an interview, described DeSantis as a threat to democracy.

“He is the opposite of freedom. He is an autocrat. He is a demagogue. And I think people are sick of him,” Crist said of the sitting Republican governor, noting that DeSantis earlier this year admonished a group of high school students for wearing face masks at an indoor news conference. “Who is this guy? Who does he think he is? He is not the boss.”

The Florida contest wraps up the busiest stretch of primaries this year. Republicans from Pennsylvania to Arizona have supported contenders who have embraced Trump's lies that the 2020 election was stolen, an assertion roundly rejected by elections officials, the former president's attorney general and judges he appointed.

And for the most part, Democrats have avoided brutal primary fights. That could be tested Tuesday, however, as voters in New York participate in congressional primaries that feature two powerful Democratic committee chairs, Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, competing for the same seat and other incumbents fending off challenges from the left.

Democrats are entering the final weeks ahead of the midterms with a sense of cautious optimism, hoping the Supreme Court's decision overturning a woman's constitutional right to an abortion will energize the party's base. But Democrats still face tremendous headwinds, including economic uncertainty and the historic reality that most parties lose seats in the first midterm after they've won the White House.

The dynamics are especially challenging for Democrats in Florida, one of the most politically divided states in the U.S. Its last three races for governor were decided by 1 percentage point or less. But the state has steadily become more favorable to Republicans in recent years.

For the first time in modern history, Florida has more registered Republicans — nearly 5.2 million — than Democrats, who have nearly 5 million registered voters. Fried serves as the only Democrat in statewide office. And Republicans have no primary competition for four of those five positions – governor, U.S. Senate, attorney general and chief financial officer — which are all held by GOP incumbents.

Democrats hope that U.S. Rep. Val Demings, who faces a little-known candidate in her Senate primary Tuesday, can unseat the state's senior U.S. senator, Republican Marco Rubio, this fall. But for now, the party's national leadership is prioritizing competitive Senate contests in other states, including neighboring Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

In Florida's governor's race, the Supreme Court's abortion decision has animated the final weeks of the Democratic primary.

Fried has promoted herself as the only true abortion-rights supporter in the race, seizing on Crist’s appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices while he was governor.

The conservative-leaning court will soon decide whether the Republican-backed state legislature's law to ban abortions after 15 weeks is constitutional. Florida’s new abortion law is in effect, with exceptions if the procedure is necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life, to prevent serious injury or if the fetus has a fatal abnormality. It does not allow exemptions in cases of rape, incest or human trafficking.

Crist insisted he is “pro-choice” and highlighted a bill he vetoed as governor in 2010 that would have required women seeking a first-trimester abortion to get and pay for an ultrasound exam.

“It is a woman’s right to choose,” Crist told the AP. “My record is crystal clear. And for my opponent to try to muddy that up is unconscionable, unfair and unwise.”

In experience and personality, voters have a clear contrast between Crist, an establishment-backed lifelong politician viewed as a relatively safe choice, and Fried, a newer face who may be in better position to catch fire with the party's most passionate voters.

Crist has raised $14 million so far this election cycle, nearly twice as much money as Fried. Having served in elected office since 1992, his supporters describe him as reliable and personable with an excellent memory.

Meanwhile, Fried has gained twice as many followers on every social network and is quick to jump on online trends. She built her profile as one of DeSantis' fiercest opponents, regularly challenging him on policy related to the COVID-19 pandemic. She also created a position within her department to ensure LGBTQ members are given opportunities as DeSantis wages what the Human Rights Campaign recently described as “an assault on transgender Floridians.”

DeSantis signed into law what opponents called the “Don't Say Gay” bill that bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and restricts it in upper grades. He also championed the “stop WOKE act” that restricts race-based conversation and analysis in business and education, although a Florida judge last week declared the law an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

Tuesday’s election is the first since the creation of DeSantis’ controversial new election police unit began investigating allegations of voter fraud and other election crimes. Last week, the Office of Election Crimes and Security made what DeSantis called its opening salvo on such cases, announcing charges against 20 people for illegally voting in 2020 after felony convictions for murder or sex crimes. More than 11 million Florida voters cast ballots in the 2020 election.

The election police unit was formed at the behest of the governor as he sought to address voter fraud allegations that have become a major Republican concern after Trump falsely claimed his reelection was stolen. Voting rights groups and Democrats have repeatedly argued that the governor will use the policing unit as a political tool to advance his standing in the GOP as he seeks reelection and angles for a potential 2024 presidential bid.

Voter fraud is rare, typically occurs in isolated instances and is generally detected. An AP investigation of the 2020 presidential election found fewer than 475 potential cases of voter fraud out of 25.5 million ballots cast in the six states where Trump and his allies disputed his loss to Democratic President Joe Biden.

DeSantis has previously praised Florida for carrying out a smooth election in 2020.

___

Peoples reported from Washington, Farrington from Tallahassee. Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

___

Follow AP for full coverage of the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ap_politics.

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