DeSantis faces voters in a changing Florida

Gov. Ron DeSantis vs. former Republican governor turned Democrat Charlie Crist (WPLG)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presented voters with a clear choice on Tuesday: do they want more of his brash brand of culture war politics or Democratic challenger Charlie Crist’s appeal to moderates.

A decisive Election Day victory over Crist, himself a former Republican governor of the state, would bolster DeSantis’ status as a GOP rising star with potential White House aspirations. The race will also be the latest test of the state’s political drift to the right.

DeSantis has vastly out-fundraised Crist and performed better in polls in the lead-up to an election where he rarely mentioned his opponent by name and instead characterized the race as a fight against the “woke agenda” of liberals.

Crist, on the other hand, centered his campaign on DeSantis, framing the Republican as a bully fixated on angling toward the presidency at the expense of the everyday problems of Floridians. At the candidates’ only debate, Crist repeatedly pressed the governor to commit to serving a full second term if election. DeSantis skirted the question.

Politically, the storm temporarily muted much of the bitter campaign rhetoric and provided DeSantis a platform to project a unifying tone as a competent crisis manager able to set aside the culture warrior and work with rivals such as Democratic President Joe Biden on response efforts.

A potential victory for DeSantis would serve to advance speculation of a 2024 presidential run, a question DeSantis has so far dodged as former President Donald Trump’s next move remains unclear. Trump, who credits himself for propelling DeSantis to a first term in the governor’s office, has grown frustrated with DeSantis’ refusal to rule out a 2024 run, according to people familiar with Trump’s thinking.

Crist, who served as a Republican governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011 and resigned a congressional seat to run this year, has been forced to fend off barbs about various stances held over his decades in Florida politics.

Crist’s Democratic primary challenger, Nikki Fried, frequently hammered him over his previous anti-abortion stance. Crist has pledged to protect abortion rights in Florida if elected, though the task may be difficult in a state government dominated by Republicans who recently passed a 15-week abortion ban expected to be upheld by the state Supreme Court.

Democrats, the minority party in the state government, face considerable challenges in a state recently considered to be a perennial political battleground but that has drifted to the right. Trump won the state twice and Republicans have been aggressive in organizing at the local level and made a sustained push on voter registration.

In a telling signal, GOP voters cast a greater number of ballots than Democrats in Miami-Dade County during the early voting period, increasing confidence that Republicans could take the county for the first time in two decades.

Last year, the GOP notched more registered voters in the state than Democrats for the first time in modern history, and then continued to widen the gap into November. Still, the state’s large number of voters not affiliated with any party have the ability to swing an election.

Some Democrats have admitted that their previous organizing and registration efforts in Florida had mostly centered around presidential races, and there were concerns that big donors and the national wing of the party might cede the state after recent losses and DeSantis’ growing popularity.

The Democratic Governors Association has bristled at that characterization and said it considers Florida a competitive battleground. The organization has spent $685,000 to help elect Crist, a spokesperson said.

The election will also unfold under the state’s controversial new Office of Election Crimes and Security, created at the request of DeSantis to address concerns in the GOP about voter fraud. The office notified county election supervisors in October of certain voters who could be ineligible to cast ballots due to prior felony convictions and requested counties prevent them from voting.

The move follows the office’s arrest of 20 people for illegally voting in 2020, the first major election since a state constitutional amendment allowed many felons to have voting rights automatically restored, except for those convicted of murder or felony sexual assault or those who still owe fines or restitution. One of those 20 people had his case recently dismissed by a Miami judge, though the governor is expected to appeal the ruling.