Charlie Crist exuded gentle confidence as he entered the room, a conference room in a teachers’ union building in downtown Tampa, Floridaearlier this month.
He may face a primary election to be the Democratic nominee in the next gubernatorial election, but Crist’s focus already seems set on the general in November – and far-right Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis which he hopes to overthrow.
“He’s the most arrogant governor I’ve ever seen in my life,” Crist told the assembled teachers who nodded in approval. “It’s shocking, really. Enough is enough.”
As primary voters in the state cast their ballots today, polls provide that Crist, a Florida political stalwart, is likely to win by a substantial margin against his closest Democratic challenger, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
The 66-year-old has held the full gamut of political office in the state, from Republican governor and attorney general to an incumbent Democratic congressman. Crist memorably joined the Democratic Party in 2012, citing an extremist takeover of the Republican Party.
Now a political centrist and one of the first in Congress to endorse Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential candidacy, he finds himself increasingly taken aback by the state of his former party.
“The leadership of today’s Republican Party is gone. There is no leadership,” he said. “It goes from one culture war to another, attacking the LGBTQ community, attacking African American voters, attacking women and the right to choose.”
A day before Crist sat down with the Guardian, DeSantis was suspended and fired effectively a Democratic state attorney for refusing to enforce Florida’s new abortion law that prohibits the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The move has been described as an extreme excess of executive power, and Crist, a mild-mannered man who chooses his words carefully, compared DeSantis to a dictator.
“I’m not one to use those kind of strong words, unless they’re true. And in this case, it’s true,” Crist said. “We have to realize what this guy is doing. He wants to be President of the United States, and he’s using Florida as a proving ground to do so.
“He’s a budding barbarian dictator.”
DeSantis is widely believed to be considering a run for the presidency 2024and raised funds more than $160 million since 2019. During that time, his tenure ushered in a wave of far-right legislation in the state — laws drastically limiting discussion of gender and sexual identity in classrooms, prohibit teaching from critical race theory to a sweeping voter suppression law.
DeSantis’ tenure and Donald Trump’s 2020 election victory in Florida, in which he increased his margin from 2016, point to a growing rightward drift in Florida, which has long been considered the swing state. largest in the United States.
No Democratic presidential candidate has won Florida since 2012, leading many observers to argue that the state is losing its purple status — a term that means a swing state, which can swing from Republican to Democratic, and vice versa.
Crist, predictably, argues the opposite, pointing to the election that saw DeSantis take the governor’s mansion in 2018 by a very slim margin of 0.4.
But regardless of the state’s current political disposition, anyone given the green light to take on DeSantis in November is likely to endure a fierce election cycle. Although Crist’s status as a veteran Florida political operative seems likely to earn him the party nomination, it has also been used by Fried as a tool of attack.
In particular, Fried characterizes her record on abortion as inconsistent, highlighting his appointment of three state Supreme Court justices to rule on Florida’s new law. Crist appointed the state’s chief justice, a former anti-abortion politician named Charles Canady, and acknowledges it’s a decision he will regret if the law is followed.
When asked why a candidate who has already occupied the governor’s mansion once as a Republican, who has been such a familiar face for so long, might stand a chance against a rising Republican star, Crist returns to the values.
“I think we need relief and a better future. My parents raised me the way they did, and I offer that decency to my state,” he said. “I know most Floridians are good, decent people.”