Florida Democrats to decide Tuesday who would be best to take abortion fight to DeSantis

But the question of who is best suited to carry that fight in front of DeSantis — veteran Rep. Charlie Crist or Nikki Fried, the state commissioner of agriculture who is vying to become Florida’s first woman governor — has sparked a bitter war of words between the two candidates and fueled a costly publicity battle that has marked the final weeks of her race for the party’s nomination.

Democratic voters in Florida will be the final arbiters on Tuesday as the state holds its primary, one of the last of the 2022 midterm cycle. Wade is reviving politics on the left this summer, giving Democrats renewed optimism about their chances on key battlefields.

With a significant fundraising advantage and overwhelming support from elected Democrats a few months ago, Crist appeared well-placed to win the nomination. Limited reliable polling has made it difficult to determine where the race stands leading up to Election Day, or how much voter sentiment has changed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that a woman’s right to an abortion was upheld by the U.S -Constitution is not guaranteed. But the dynamic of the race has changed significantly as voters and candidates have become clear about what is at stake in November.

“I can sense Nikki Fried is gaining ground,” said Brad Coker, a Florida-based pollster for Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy. “Don’t count them out. I wouldn’t bet my house on it, but if I had $100 found under a rock, I’d bet Nikki Fried.”

For Fried, who stumbled out of the gates as a candidate and was slow to recover, Dobbs’ decision brought new purpose to her campaign and she carried that momentum into the home stretch. She hammered Crist, a former Republican governor before he became 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 two judges who decided to uphold abortion restrictions.

“I’ve been pro-choice my whole life,” Fried said last month during the race’s only debate. “I made sure I was on the women’s side. Charlie can’t say that.”

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It remains to be seen whether Fried’s advance came too late. As of Monday, 970,000 Democrats had already cast their ballots by mail or at early polling stations (about 1.5 million Democrats voted in the 2018 primary). However, the barrage of criticism has penetrated so far that Crist felt the need to respond on air. Throughout August, his campaign spent valuable ad dollars on a defensive 15-second commercial to thwart Fried’s attacks.

“I vetoed anti-abortion legislation to protect your right to choose, and I have a perfect record from NARAL and Planned Parenthood,” Crist says in the ad. “Nikki knows I fought for your right to choose.

Roe’s ouster, though slandered by Democrats, has nevertheless provided much-needed tailwind for a party that has faltered since losing the governor’s race to DeSantis by 32,000 votes four years ago. They’ve watched as DeSantis used the office to impose an aggressively conservative agenda and catapulted himself into the upper stratosphere of GOP presidential nominees while amassing an unthinkable sum of money towards his re-election — more than $132 million as of Thursday . Along the way, Republicans surpassed Democrats in the state’s registered voters for the first time and now boast a 200,000 voter lead.

Democratic lawmakers, in the minority in both houses, were powerless when the legislature passed and DeSantis signed a 15-week abortion ban with no exceptions for rape and incest. The new law went into effect on July 1 and remains in effect despite a legal challenge.

But after the Dobbs decision, Democrats saw a flood of money into their races and renewed energy that manifested itself in protests across the state. The outrage continued as the aftermath of life after Roe materialized. And last week, the ramifications of yet another DeSantis-backed anti-abortion bill that would require parental consent for an abortion of a minor played out publicly. A court ruled that a 16-year-old orphaned Florida girl was not mature enough to choose to terminate her pregnancy and denied her a waiver that would have allowed her to have an abortion.

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To be clear, the Democrats here are concerned with one thing above all else: beating DeSantis and slowing his rise onto the national stage. However, the back-and-forth between Crist and Fried over the abortion has resulted in the dueling arguments being lumped around each other’s candidacy.

Fried’s allies are hoping an uproar over Crist could anticipate the shift in soil in Florida, similar to what the country saw earlier this month when Kansas voters rejected an amendment to remove abortion rights from the state’s constitution. They say that as a woman who won four years ago when every other Democrat running for election statewide in Florida lost, Fried is uniquely positioned to capture that energy.

Dobbs’ decision “was definitely a game changer,” said Kevin Cate, a top strategist for Fried. “The intensity after that was tremendous and there are people who are looking for someone to be their champion. It’s about hitting the moment.”

But much of the Florida Democratic establishment believes otherwise. Most elected Democrats support Crist, the candidate who propelled them to 64,000 votes as the party’s nominee for governor in 2014. The state’s largest working class groups have supported Crist over Fried, 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 will not be bothered by Crist’s complicated history on abortion rights, instead focusing on his reliable record during his three terms in the US House of Representatives, while insisting his track record will appeal to more swing voters from the center becomes.

“For me, it’s not like, ‘You’re a woman, you check that box, I’m going to support you,'” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who will lead House Democrats in Tallahassee next year. “It’s, ‘What are you bringing to the table holistically?’ For me, Charlie Crist is the best person to meet right now.”

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Perhaps most notably, the major pro-choice groups have chosen to remain neutral in the race.

Rep. Kristen Arrington, one of the few elected officials to support Fried, said she will support Crist if he is the nominee, but her fellow Democrats underestimate Fried’s appeal as a fresher face.

“I don’t want to poopooen them. A lot of them made decisions beforehand (Dobbs),” Arrington said. “But sometimes women can be their own worst enemy and not support each other. Nothing against the male candidates because they are great allies and we can’t do it alone, but I think it’s important to have women in the lead. For too long, we’ve had men making decisions about our bodies.”

Crist and Fried expended nearly all of their resources winning the primary, much of it spent convincing Democratic voters to abortion. Meanwhile, DeSantis and the Florida GOP have already spent more than $10 million on digital and television advertising as part of the incumbent governor’s re-election campaign, about twice what Fried and Crist spent combined on airtime, according to an analysis by the Data Collected by AdImpact.

Despite limited investment in Florida so far, Democrats remain confident that the party and its supporters will fund a campaign against DeSantis in next Wednesday’s election, regardless of the candidate. A potentially motivating factor is that Florida remains one of the more permissive states to achieve abortion in the South for now.

However, some Crist supporters have privately expressed concern that the grueling fight over primary school abortion has fragmented the party on its way to a difficult general election.

“It’s a shame that Nikki Fried is trying to undermine another Democrat to win political office,” said Joshua Karp, a strategist for the Crist campaign. “Democrats are keen 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 backed him.”

CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.

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