Veteran ex-Republican pol Charlie Crist was chosen by Florida Democrats to take on the very menacing Governor Ron DeSantis. I had some thoughts at New York about Crist’s apparent strategy.
Former and would-be future Florida governor Charlie Crist is famously one of the sunniest people in politics. In a classic profile of the perma-tanned ex-Republican and ex-independent candidate during his first gubernatorial run as a Democrat in 2014, Michael Kruse marveled at the authenticity with which Crist uttered cringeworthy pandering remarks:
“One of the guests [at a political event] asked, ‘Governor, do you ever have bad days?’ And he answered, ‘It hardly ever happens! How can you have bad days? We live in Florida!’”
Now that Crist is taking on the powerful and aggressively abrasive culture warrior Ron DeSantis, Kruse wondered earlier this year if such an upbeat politician was mismatched in a contest that seemed to call for maximum confrontation:
“[T]he way Crist is running is a bet. That people are exhausted of the nonstop politics of conflict. That what they want really is to dial down the volume and the vitriol. And that almost all Democrats will vote for Crist and almost all Republicans will vote for DeSantis but that enough of the people somewhere in whatever’s left of the middle will vote because of this for Crist.”
But the day after Crist easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary over the more hard-edged Nikki Fried, he seemed to strike a new and somewhat startling tone:
That doesn’t sound very sunny, does it? But if you listen to his full remarks, he follows this dismissal of DeSantis supporters with an appeal to a broad coalition of voters:
“I want the vote of the people of Florida who care about our state: good Democrats, good independents, good Republicans.”
This echoes his primary-night attack on DeSantis: “Guys, this is simple. Governor DeSantis only cares about the White House, he doesn’t care about your house.” So Crist is indeed continuing the “bet” that he can contrast himself with DeSantis precisely over their stark differences in temperament, focus, and perhaps even authenticity. At the same time, he’s drawing that contrast with a degree of passion that should satisfy Democrats who want to wage war on the man they fear as Trump 2.0, a coldly calculating authoritarian who knows exactly how to stimulate the fears and hatreds of his MAGA base while keeping the trains running on time. By calling out MAGA voters as snakes in the Garden of Eden that is his beloved Florida, Crist can perhaps have it both ways.
But it’s a gamble. Politicians hardly ever publicly write off voters. For a “legendary retail pol” (as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti recently called Crist), it must be actually painful. Yes, there aren’t nearly as many swing voters today as there were as recently as the 1990s, and boosting base enthusiasm has become the touchstone of candidate messaging lately, particularly in low-turnout midterm elections. Still, condemning your opponent’s supporters as incorrigible while appealing to members of that opponent’s party is tricky (though perhaps Crist, a former Republican, can present himself as a role model). You can be sure that Team DeSantis will take full advantage of Crist’s “don’t want your hateful vote” comment to rile up MAGA voters and tell potential defectors from his coalition that Democrats are the ones who are being hateful and divisive.
Over the course of a general-election campaign, however, it will be hard for anyone paying attention to view Crist as a hater. He will likely convey the sense that he is sad more than angry at what DeSantis is doing to Florida and wants to do to America from sea to shining sea. It’s as likely to work as any other strategy, as this is a midterm where Democrats are at a disadvantage and Florida is trending Republican.