TAMPA — Charlie Crist’s convincing win over Nan Rich in the Democratic primary for governor sets the stage for the most expensive gubernatorial race in Florida history — and one of the nastiest.
Florida voters, who may have thought they already were inundated with negative ads, will be buried deeper in 30-second attack spots, up to twice as many in the next six weeks as they’ve endured in the past 10 months.
Most of that advertising, more than $30 million worth so far, has been negative, and that’s likely to continue.
Crist, 58, a former Republican and former governor, state attorney general, education commissioner and state senator from St. Petersburg, easily defeated Rich, 72, of Weston, a former state senator active in civic and charitable causes.
His winning margin of nearly 3-1 could help him answer critics who have said Crist can’t unite the party behind him.
Gov. Rick Scott won easily over two unknown opponents in the GOP primary, but one of those two, Sarasota businesswoman and party activist Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, registered a surprising 11 percent of the vote statewide — despite a campaign that spent less than $30,000 to more than $23 million by Scott.
Some experts said that appeared to be a protest vote, or a sign of the growing muscle of Florida Hispanic voters.
Both Crist and Scott will have Hispanic running mates — Annette Taddeo for Crist and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera for Scott — but neither appeared on the primary election ballot.
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In a victory speech in Fort Lauderdale, Crist delivered a populist message.
“On virtually every issue that matters to Florida’s middle-class families, when it comes to taking even a single step to make it a little easier for families to pay the bills, raise their kids, save for retirement, Rick Scott hasn’t been on our side,” he said.
“In 70 days, we want to make Florida Scott free.”
Scott didn’t make a public speech. In an email news release, he repeated his accusations that Crist was responsible for economic losses in Florida during the 2007 recession, saying voters will “have a choice between a governor who sent our state into a tailspin and a governor who gets results.”
Hoping to avoid postprimary bickering that has hampered Democratic nominees in the past, Crist and Rich will campaign together in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, along with Sen. Bill Nelson, the state’s senior elected Democrat.
University of Florida political scientist Dan Smith said Crist’s margin was “what a lot of people were expecting, and the Crist camp can call it a strong victory, but it still leaves questions about the 1 in 4 who voted for a little-known, underfunded candidate.”
Cuevas-Neunder’s showing was “clearly a protest vote,” Smith said, possibly from Hispanics or from tea party Republicans unhappy with Scott’s recent moves to the middle of the political spectrum.
Crist entered the race last fall with a double-digit lead in polls but now looks increasingly like the underdog, trailing narrowly in polls and facing an unprecedented advertising onslaught from Scott, who has forecast spending $100 million to win re-election.
Crist hopes to raise and spend about half that.
The Crist and Scott campaigns, their independent political committees and the state parties already have spent more than $30 million on TV advertising — about $23.6 million on Scott’s side and $9.8 million on Crist’s.
Retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican, estimated that 80 percent of the advertising so far has been negative and that it’s likely to continue.
Paulson said Scott, who polls low in popularity, is using a negative campaign to establish equivalence with Crist, making voters think Crist is no better, on issues including ethics questions and support for public education.
Paulson compared it to Scott’s 2010 race, when he responded to criticism of his former hospital company’s Medicare fraud by accusing Democratic opponent Alex Sink of corruption.
But the public also has doubts about Crist, partly inspired by Scott’s withering ad barrages. A July Quinnipiac University poll found both with larger disapproval than approval numbers.
So both candidates have an incentive for a negative campaign, said Quinnipiac spokesman Peter Green. “Whoever wins, it will likely be as the lesser of two evils.”
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A negative campaign could depress turnout, worsening Crist’s biggest problem — the tendency of Florida’s Democratic voters to stay home in nonpresidential elections, Paulson said.
Off-year Florida voter turnout tends to be 20 points or more lower than presidential years, and studies show Democratic constituencies — minorities, young people and unmarried women — are the ones most likely not to vote.
“That could be part of Gov. Scott’s strategy,” he said.
Rich said she’ll endorse Crist during the tour Thursday but stopped short of an endorsement in her concession speech, saying only that defeating Rick Scott is “the goal that I remain committed to,” along with “the progressive values of our party.”
Will supporters of Rich, a committed liberal, enthusiastically back a man who once called himself a “Reagan Republican”? Some will, but some are angry that Crist ignored Rich during the campaign, refusing to debate her.
“My first preference was Nan Rich, but I’ll be a Crist supporter if he wins the primary,” said Mike Steinberg, of Tampa, a former county party chairman.
“It’s not about Crist. It’s about the platform of the Democratic Party and its positions.”
But Rich backer Susan Smith, of Tampa, president of the state party’s progressive caucus, said her supporters “will vote for Crist, but I’m not sure if the enthusiasm will be there or if people will be working for him. People don’t get excited about voting against something. They get excited about voting for something.”