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Democrats hope Florida primary sets the stage for blue wave  

On Tuesday, Democratic voters will choose their candidates for governor and U.S. senator in a push to unseat Republican incumbents Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio.

TAMPA, Fla. (CN) — In one of the nation’s last primaries, Florida voters head to the polls on Tuesday to solidify a general election that could set the tone for the second half of President Joe Biden’s term and the political landscape leading into the 2024 presidential election.

Two Democrats – Congressman Charlie Crist and Florida Agricultural Secretary Nikki Fried –are vying for the chance to challenge incumbent Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in November. Meanwhile, two-term Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio is likely to face his toughest Democratic opponent yet in Congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief of Orlando.

DeSantis and Rubio, who have no Republican challengers, will coast to November’s general election. But for Democrats, Tuesday’s primary is a chance to throw a liberal wrench into a possible 2024 presidential run for DeSantis, and wrestle a crucial Senate seat from Rubio that could allow Biden to cement a legacy in the second half of his term.

For many Democratic voters, the choice between Crist and Fried is less about ideology and more about who can beat the incumbent.

“I like Nikki Fried,” said Al Langston, an accountant from Orlando. “But unless something changes, I’m not voting for her.”

The 42-year-old believes Crist, a former Republican governor turned Democrat, has the national backing needed to take on DeSantis.

“She has some of the things I agree with like legalization of marijuana,” Langston said of Fried. “But she is not as well-known as Charlie.”

Polls throughout the summer echoed this narrative – until this week’s Public Opinion Research Lab poll from the University of North Florida.

Democrats surveyed indicated they would vote or already have for Fried at 47% compared to Crist’s 43%. Two other newcomer candidates, Cadance Daniel and Robert Willis, grabbed 6% together.

Michael Binder, University of North Florida professor of political science, said the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade contributed to the change-up.

“Fried seems to have reversed the eight-point lead that Crist had when we asked registered Democrats about vote choice in February,” Binder said in a statement, adding the case has “particularly energized women that are almost 20 points more likely to vote for her.”

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried speaks during an interview at the Phillip & Patricia Frost Museum of Science in Miami on April 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

When asked about the poll, Crist campaign spokeswoman Samantha Ramirez said the poll is “an outlier” and referenced another recent poll conducted by Change Research that showed a 10-point lead for the congressman.

“Nikki Fried at this stage of the race has no path to victory barring a black swan event,” said Ramirez, adding the most important factor in the primary is “Charlie Crist polls better against DeSantis in every poll of the general election.”

Ramirez went on to say that Crist’s longevity in Florida politics attracts the “strongest, broadest coalition.”

The Fried campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the poll, but she has consistently attacked Crist’s record as a Republican governor from 2007 to 2011.

The same survey found that all polled voters would choose DeSantis over both candidates if the election were held today.

DeSantis has made headlines over the summer for his support of anti-abortion policies and attacking so-called “woke” policies in education by restricting discussion of race and gender. Even after Florida Legislature adjourned in May, he’s continued to travel the state holding press conferences that border on campaign events, avoiding pointed attacks on his gubernatorial challengers by name but arguing against “the left’s schemes” and Biden’s national policies.

He silently put in paperwork last November for reelection, and has since avoided any talk about his campaign or the buzz about a possible 2024 presidential bid, all the while amassing a massive war campaign war chest of more than $155 million from his own campaign contributions and a PAC that has fundraised since 2019.

Recently, the nation’s most-talked-about governor has deftly waded into election law days before the primary.

On Thursday, DeSantis held a press conference announcing criminal charges for 20 people accused of illegally voting in the 2020 election.

"Yet they went ahead and voted anyways,” DeSantis said, surrounded by more than a dozen law enforcement officers at the Broward County Courthouse in Ft. Lauderdale. “That is against the law, and now they're going to pay the price for it.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has not responded to a request for the names of those arrested.

During the spring legislative session, DeSantis pushed Republican lawmakers to create a new agency, controlled by the governor, called the Office of Election Crimes and Security. He heralded the arrests this week as the first win for the agency and “the opening salvo,” just days before the primary. 

Broward County, one of the most populous in the state, is a Democratic stronghold in South Florida. DeSantis made headlines early in his term by replacing the county’s clerk of court and the sheriff. Recently, he also suspended Hillsborough County’s state attorney, an elected official from another Democratic stronghold.

“The polarization of DeSantis support is striking, if not altogether surprising with the political agenda and media presence this past year," said Binder, the UNF professor.

In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., speaks during closing arguments in the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 3, 2020. (Senate Television via AP)

Nationally, the all-but-certain Senate race between Demings and Rubio in the fall is one of the most watched races in the nation that could tip the balance of the evenly divided body.

Demings, first elected to Congress in 2017, is a 27-year-veteran of the Orlando Police Department who rose to chief of police for one of the largest forces in the state. She was among the top contenders for Biden’s vice president in 2020 and was a House manager during the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

Her candidacy against Rubio has garnered donations from across the country, raising $47 million.

The previously referenced UNF poll puts Demings at 48% to Rubio’s 44%, with 7% undecided. But, a more recent poll released on Thursday by the nonpartisan Center Street PAC shows Rubio with an 11-point lead (52%-41%) among likely voters.

“Based on the data, Demings has more work to do to improve her awareness and image with voters,” said the PAC co-founder Matt O’Brien. “Right now, her campaign has to focus on the basics -- getting Demings established in voters’ minds. There will be time down the line to get to issues and comparison ads against Rubio.”

Demings has primary challengers: William Sanchez, a lawyer with a Department of Justice background focusing on poverty issues; Ricardo De La Fuente, second-generation immigrant businessman and political newcomer; and attorney Brian Rush, a centrist former state representative and youth football coach.

However, Demings’ fundraising and poll numbers vastly outweigh that of her Democratic opponents.

“I don’t know as much about her as Rubio, but I didn’t hear anything bad about her while I’ve lived here and I’ve heard plenty about Rubio,” said Langston, the Orlando voter, about Demings. “People might just want a change.”

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