Former Florida Gov. Crist Wins Nom for His Old Job Back
By Anthony Man and Brian Ballou
Charlie Crist won a commanding victory in the Democratic primary Tuesday, propelling him forward into what's already a blistering hot campaign against Republican Gov. Rick Scott in what will be the highest profile -- and most expensive -- governor's race in the country.
Crist defeated Nan Rich of Weston in every corner of the state. And he immediately set out to curry favor with her supporters -- who he'll need to turn out in November -- by heaping praise on his vanquished foe.
"We should celebrate, but we've got to get to work really fast because we know what we're running against," he told supporters at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale. "In 70 days, we want to make Florida Scott free."
He pledged an administration where "common sense and compassion come before cynicism and cronyism." Twice when audience members booed mentions of Scott, Crist departed from his text to offer this advice: "Don't boo, vote."
Crist's win was the kind of victory that normally would provide a jolt of momentum toward November. Just how much of a boost he gets in this case is uncertain, since the result -- a Crist victory -- was a foregone conclusion.
The Florida governor's race is expected to be the most expensive in the state's history with Scott's campaign, an affiliated committee and outside supporters spending well over $100 million. Democrats are hoping their candidate, and outside interests supporting him, can raise half that amount.
"It's going to be intense and rough and no-holds-barred, and it's going to be like that from now until the first week in November," said former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, a Lighthouse Point Republican. When Crist was a Republican, LeMieux was his top aide. He's a strong supporter of Scott's re-election. "It's going to be a close race."
The governor's race has unofficially been a Crist vs. Scott contest for months, with both candidates focusing all their attention on each other. And neither side is taking a break now that the matchup is official:
--Democrat leaders are preaching a united front.
The state party is planning joint Crist-Rich appearances Thursday morning in Orlando and Thursday afternoon in Fort Lauderdale. And U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said Democrats would coalesce around Crist as the nominee that the party's volunteers would be knocking on doors "until your knuckles bleed."
Wasserman Schultz put in appearances at both Crist's primary night victory party and at Rich's primary night gathering at the Bonaventure Country Club in Weston. Wasserman Schultz, who plans to participate in Thursday's unity events, said she was "100 percent" convinced the party would come together.
Rich wasn't in a completely magnanimous mood, though, reminding her supporters that Crist had repeatedly refused her demands to debate during the primary campaign. She said that when she called Crist to congratulate him on his victory, the call was brief. "I didn't feel like debating tonight," she said.
"I'll support him in our goal to defeat Rick Scott," she said in an interview.
--Both camps are focusing on money.
Crist will gather members of his finance committee Wednesday for a morning-after strategy session at the Pier 66. And Scott is continuing to raise plenty of cash. On Wednesday his campaign is holding a "garage party" fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale hosted by some of the top local names in business and politics. The invitation for the $5,000 event says there will be burgers and dancing -- along with Dom Perignon champagne.
-- Republicans didn't wait a moment before going after Crist.
The Scott campaign dispatched Leslie Dougher, the chairwoman of the state Republican Party, to the Pier 66 as Crist's primary victory party was starting. She deemed him "President Barack Obama's nominee" who would push Obamacare, increase government spending and embark on what she sees as an Obama-style spree of executive orders.
Republican activists have a special dislike for Crist, 58, who spent decades climbing the political ladder as a Republican, culminating in his winning the governor's office in 2006 as their party's candidate.
As his populist style and willingness to work with Democrats became unpopular in the Republican Party as tea party influence was growing -- and because it was apparent he was going to lose the 2010 Republican nomination for U.S. Senate -- Crist jumped ship.
He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as an independent/no party affiliation candidate in 2010. In 2012, he was one of President Barack Obama's biggest re-election supporters in Florida. At the end of that year, he officially became a Democrat.
Rich, 72, began her quest for the Democratic nomination for governor in April 2012 -- before Crist even joined the party -- as she was finishing a term as Democratic Party leader in the Florida Senate and getting ready to leave the Legislature because of term limits.
Despite the two-plus years on the campaign trail, she was never able to approach Crist in public opinion polls, money or support from Party leaders. Democrats, who haven't won a governor's election in Florida since 1994, were hungry for a candidate seen as a credible challenger to Scott and virtually the entire Democratic Party establishment -- including major donors and people who can raise money from others -- supported Crist.
The Crist campaign's decision to put him in Fort Lauderdale on primary night, and not in his St. Petersburg hometown, is a strategic move that put him on the news in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale TV market -- and shows the importance of motivating voters in the Democratic bastions of South Florida.
Like Crist, the last three Democratic nominees for governor were from the Tampa Bay area. All failed to perform well in South Florida and all three lost to Republicans.
Crist had a strong showing throughout the state, defeating Rich even in her home county of Broward. At 11 p.m., Crist had 74 percent of the vote statewide, 77 percent in Broward, 80 percent in Palm Beach County and 80 percent in Miami-Dade.
Even LeMieux, a strong Scott supporter, said Crist's numbers show he "has control of the Democratic base and the Democratic base is going to turn out for him," LeMieux said.
Wasserman Schultz said in an interview that Crist's showing is a good sign for the Democratic chances. "If there was any doubt in pundits' minds or even in some Democrats' minds that Charlie Crist wasn't going to be enthusiastically embraced, those doubts were erased tonight."
(c)2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)