the inside game

The Super-High-Stakes 2022 Race No One Is Talking About

Charlie Crist makes the case he can beat Ron DeSantis. Photo: Octavio Jones/REUTERS

Charlie Crist’s pitch is easy to understand. The first thing to know is that Ron DeSantis, widely thought to be Donald Trump’s heir to the GOP throne, won Florida’s governorship by less than half a percentage point in 2018. The second is that what happens in Florida matters everywhere, since it’s the crown jewel of battleground states in presidential elections. The third is that Crist — a current Democratic representative and former Republican governor — has the name recognition and goodwill to make it a race. And that’s why, less than ten seconds into his appearance before an almost entirely masked audience of about six dozen parishioners at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Boynton Beach, 13 miles down the coast from Mar-a-Lago on the last Sunday in July, he described his mission in straightforward terms: “I am running for governor to defeat Ron DeSantis.”

This may sound both reductive and negative, but it is, in fact, how Crist thinks about his current endeavor. “We’re all being put upon by this guy because he’s trying to run for president, and he’s trying to prove to the hard right of the Republicans that he’s the one,” he continued gravely. Crist had to be quick because he was due at another historically Black church in minutes, but then again there wasn’t much room for nuance in his message. A deeply tanned 66-year-old who has been a relentless and schmoozy fixture of the state’s political scene since long before his stint as governor, between 2007 and 2011, he looked for just a second as if he were going to veer into policy talk by bringing up the importance of education, but he quickly snapped back, calling DeSantis an “autocrat” who “wants to be a dictator.”

Most of the churchgoers were into it, but five minutes was clearly enough. They were there for God, not politics, and he wasn’t telling this particular crowd — in a precinct that went for Joe Biden over Trump by 88 points — anything it didn’t already agree with. And on that Sunday, 100 days out from Election Day, it was clear that he had a more pressing matter to address anyway: Why doesn’t anyone else, starting with a Democratic Establishment that universally agrees DeSantis is nightmare material, care?

Florida’s contest, one of 36 gubernatorial races this year, is an afterthought in the national political landscape. There has been scant reliable polling on the race, and to the extent that it gets mentioned as an important one in the upcoming midterms, it’s often half-heartedly. In May, the New York Times included it in a list of nine governor’s races to watch but in only ninth place. By August, in a report about Democratic optimism at the state level, the paper named a dozen states, but Florida didn’t even get a mention.

The simplest explanation for this dynamic is that nonpartisan analysts and nationally focused Democrats alike simply no longer believe the party can win statewide in Florida, and they’re tired of getting burned — especially after liberals poured so much hope, money, and energy into gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum’s race against DeSantis four years ago and with the memory of Trump’s two victories in the state still fresh on their minds. There’s plenty of in-state reason for such pessimism, too: The Florida Democratic Party has been focused on cleaning up its own messes after ending 2020 $800,000 in debt, just as many Latinos in South Florida swung toward Trump and, more recently, the number of registered Republicans overtook Democrats in the state for the first time. Republicans now have large majorities in the state legislature, and Democrats will be losing two congressional seats to redistricting, a consequence of sustained state-level and down-ballot losses in a state that Barack Obama won twice but that hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1994.

Then there are the particulars of the race. No one in Florida thinks DeSantis is a particularly dynamic campaigner, but he has clearly become a conservative hero and a donor favorite: He had over $100 million in his campaign accounts by April, and though Crist’s fundraising has picked up in recent months, his roughly $1 million per month rate was still about ten times smaller than DeSantis’s. There hasn’t been much polling of the race, but while most available numbers suggest it may be close, DeSantis has been buoyed by his roughly 50 percent approval rating on matters including the economy and his handling of the pandemic. The governor appeared to be acknowledging that he may have to work for his reelection when he went on-air with his first ads — about his COVID record — in early August, but almost all of his campaign-trail messaging is about Biden, not Crist or Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner who’s thought to be running behind Crist in the primary later this month. The Cook Political Report rates the race as “likely Republican” or just as competitive as the contests in red Texas, Alaska, and Ohio. The Democrat who has gotten the most attention for going after DeSantis happens to run California.

Crist seems to know he’ll need some unlikely math to work out for him to make the race competitive. A few hours after his church visits, I heard him encouraging volunteers to put bumper stickers on their cars because, he said, he once heard that each bumper sticker translates to seven new votes, though he conceded he had no idea if that was true. Yet, his thinking goes, not only did DeSantis just barely win last time but Trump won the state by just one and then 3 percent. Florida, in other words, is no long shot for Democrats if they would just invest in it.

A DeSantis loss, which many in the GOP consider impossible, would be a political earthquake. He’s not just a rising star for now but is almost universally thought to be the party’s next step after Trump, and his demise might throw Republicans’ national planning and conception of the party’s future into disarray, just as it might empower Democrats thinking ahead to 2024 and beyond. And even if you think a win in Florida is just too far-fetched for Democrats in 2022, why not spend some time and money trying to make DeSantis’s life difficult and his image a bit muddier before he pivots to Iowa?

One plausible answer to this question concerns Crist’s past, which Fried, his primary opponent and Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, has used to argue that he hardly represents the future. Elected to the governor’s mansion in 2006 as a Republican, Crist was considered for John McCain’s running mate in 2008 before his political fortunes reversed when, the next year, he welcomed Obama to Florida with a hug as the new president visited to tout his stimulus package. He soon lost a Senate race to upstart tea-party darling Marco Rubio, became an independent and then a Democrat, then lost a bid to return to the governorship, this time to Rick Scott, before finding a seat in Congress that would take him. Fried has been promoting herself as a modern Democrat who offers the party and the state a jolt of energy and, if she wins the primary, donor attention. But her criticisms of Crist as an ex-Republican who was not only backed by the NRA and friendly with Trump but also called himself pro-life have not been enough to dislodge her from underdog territory.

Crist’s case is helped by his status as a legendary retail pol, even in the eyes of his rivals. In our four hours together, he easily shook hundreds of hands, took dozens of photos, and interrupted our conversation every few minutes to greet people as though they were his best friend. Yet each time, he rarely went 30 seconds without bringing up DeSantis. After working the tables at a packed diner in the Northwood neighborhood of West Palm Beach, he addressed the mostly receptive room to let them know that their current governor “doesn’t understand what democracy is.”

Sitting in a booth with me a few minutes later, he insisted the press was simply missing the story by assuming these midterm elections would be anything like the usual ones, wherein the president’s party loses widely. “No. 1: Roe v. Wade. Bombshell. Bombshell! You think we have some motivated women voters in Florida now?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s like, Oh my God, he signed a bill that limits your ability to make a choice about your own body, and there’s no exception for rape or incest! He’s out of his freaking mind. Who would do that? Vladimir Putin.” Between DeSantis’s hard line on abortion and the rising salience of gun control as a midterm issue, Crist said, “we’re in rare air historically in our country politically right now. Rare.”

A few moments earlier, he had grabbed an orange-and-yellow wall decoration of a smiling sun, and he was now carrying it with him to underscore his insistence on optimism. “They call us the Sunshine State, and everybody’s like, ‘This guy’s a monster, a monster!’” he continued, recounting the time DeSantis scolded children standing behind him at a press conference to remove their masks.

That message was clear by now, so I asked Crist to predict the final margin of the race. “Seven,” he said, totally serious. This seemed like one level of exuberance too far in the swingiest state, against a man with ten times as much money, in a year widely predicted to be unkind to Democrats. My skepticism (or disbelief) must have shown, but Crist wasn’t going to stop now. He said everyone was forgetting that Trump and DeSantis don’t get along too well, and he was hoping they would start fighting over primacy in the party before November, therefore splitting the GOP. As for the money problem? Well, he said, Gillum didn’t have any cash after winning the primary either, and he ended up raising a ton as the nominee. It was already starting for Crist, he said: The American Federation of Teachers had just given him half a million to get started.

Only after a few minutes away from a crowd, having relaxed slightly, did he revise down his prediction. Fine, he told me in the car ride from the diner to a canvassing launch in a strip mall, he would win by only three points. But he was back at it minutes later with his volunteers. As I pulled out of the parking lot, Crist was kneeling, having worn one of them down. He was helping her put one of his bumper stickers on her car.

The Super-High-Stakes 2022 Race No One Is Talking About