TAMPA — The race for governor in Florida will begin in the primary Aug. 26 with an underdog challenge by former state Sen. Nan Rich against former Gov. Charlie Crist to pick the Democrat who will run against Gov. Rick Scott.
Rich, who has never run for statewide office, is far outgunned in money and name recognition by Crist but contends she’s the true Democrat in the race and the one to take on Scott. She’s getting backing from some in the liberal wing of the party who are put off by Crist’s record and issues stances as a former Republican.
Crist, meanwhile, says he’s keeping his eyes on the prize — the race against Scott— because unseating him is important to the state. He has avoided Rich during the primary campaign, refusing to debate her or appear on the same stage.
Rich blasts Crist in every campaign appearance, but Crist’s advertising and campaign messaging are aimed solely at Scott.
“The mission is to make a change in Tallahassee and defeat Rick Scott,” Crist said in an interview. “I’ve got $100 million coming at me” — a reference to Scott’s expected campaign spending — “and if I take my eye off that ball for one second, I’m doing the voters a disservice.”
Speaking of Rich, he said, “I’ve got all the respect in the world for my opponent, but I’ve got to face what the facts are.”
Democrats, who haven’t won a race for governor since 1994, are hungry for a victory, and polling suggests most accept Crist as their best hope against Scott.
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One organization that has spent substantial time and money talking up Rich is the Florida Republican Party. Eager to draw attention to anything that will cause a problem for Crist, the Republicans have even used mass mailings and robocalls to accuse Democrats and Crist of ignoring her.
Scott also faces primary opposition but from two virtually unknown Republican challengers, Yinka Abosede Adeshina, of Tallahassee, and Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, of Sarasota. Neither has raised a substantial amount of money or drawn public indications of support.
Unable to afford a TV ad war, Rich has run a doggedly persistent ground campaign against Crist, traveling the state for more than 350 appearances, by her count, at Democratic clubs and other forums and demanding Crist debate her on TV.
She has even gone so far as to equate Crist with Scott on some issues, including education.
“On vouchers I put them in exactly the same category,” she said at a Pinellas County Democratic Party meeting last week. “Both Rick Scott and Charlie Crist had major voucher expansions that they signed into law.”
Despite this, she said, she’ll support the Democratic nominee against Scott regardless of the primary outcome; Crist says the same.
“I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I believe there needs to be a real Democrat with core Democratic values and principles running against Rick Scott so we can have a true contrast between the two candidates,” Rich said in an interview.
“I’m the candidate who can beat Rick Scott, because it’s a true contrast, instead of a Republican and a former Republican or a Republican-light.”
Asked to name issues that distinguish her from Crist, she picked gun control and education as the top two.
As a former Republican, Crist bucked his party on several occasions on issues including abortion and voting rights but held to the conservative line on gun rights, earning top ratings from the National Rifle Association.
“I have an F,” Rich said. “I have always believed in sensible gun laws. I’ve filed bills to close the gun show loophole and extend background screenings, and he has been opposed to sensible gun laws.”
She said Crist, as Florida education commissioner and governor, backed what she sarcastically calls “the Jeb Bush reform program” for education, including the use of tax money for private school tuition vouchers and charter schools run by for-profit companies.
“He hasn’t changed his position on that,” she said.
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Rich said Crist’s reputation as an advocate for environmental preservation is overrated, noting that he signed a bill as governor in 2009 that essentially dismantled the state’s growth management apparatus. And in 2008, while under consideration as a running mate for John McCain, he backed the expansion of Gulf oil drilling.
Though little-known to the public, Rich is respected within the Democratic Party as a policy-master and as a spokeswoman for liberal positions on issues including public education and health care. She was state Senate Democratic leader in 2010-12.
Asked why Democrats should pick him over Rich, Crist said, “I’d recommend people judge me by my deeds.”
He cited populist stances he’s taken, sometimes opposed to standard GOP positions — “fighting the utilities, fighting the insurance companies, fighting for civil rights and consumers.”
“Over and over again on the issues of the environment, education, friends have told me, ‘You’ve always been a Democrat; you just didn’t know it.’ Well, now I know it.”
Crist said he’s still a Second Amendment supporter, but because of an increase in horrific gun crimes, he now backs background checks and a waiting period for all gun purchases, including those at gun shows, and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
In 1998, he opposed a move to close the “gun show loophole” proposed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Crist hasn’t backed off his previous support for private school tuition subsidies but thinks the state corporate tax credit program that funds the subsidies should be expanded to benefit public schools. On testing and teacher evaluations, he said, “I think it’s appropriate to take a measure. But today, the emphasis on testing has gotten out of control.”
He cited his 2010 veto of legislation that would have based teacher evaluations on student test results, an idea enacted after he left office.
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Crist’s biggest advantages over Rich may be name recognition, developed over a political career that dates to 1992 and includes holding three statewide offices, and an ingratiating political personality.
On the campaign trail, he is the ultimate people person, eagerly seeking out average voters to greet and shake hands with, remembering names and treating everyone as a friend.
He said polls provide “pretty good evidence” that he’s the Democrat with the best chance of beating Scott, and “the opportunity and ability to win in November is pretty important” in picking a Democratic nominee.
There’s been little if any polling matching Crist and Rich, but general election polls consistently show him performing better against Scott than does Rich.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Crist leading Scott 45 percent to 40 percent. Scott led Rich 41 percent to 34 percent.
Asked whether their opinion of Rich was favorable or unfavorable, 83 percent said they didn’t know enough about her to say.
Rich will also have to deal with a severe fundraising disadvantage.
As of July 11, Crist’s campaign had raised $4.2 million, and his independent political committee, Charlie Crist for Florida, had raised $10.6 million.
By far the largest category of contributors to both his independent committee and his campaign are lawyers and law firms, including several six-figure contributions.
Crist is also getting institutional support from the Democratic Party, having made himself a staunch ally of President Barack Obama. The Democratic Governor’s Association, the arm of the national party that backs candidates for governor, has given Crist $1 million in two contributions, clearly signaling it considers him the party’s best hope against Scott.
State party officials say they’re neutral but have been criticized for appearing to lean toward Crist, including banning Rich from speaking at a major party fundraising dinner at a time when she was the only prominent Democrat filed to run against Scott.
Rich, meanwhile, had raised $408,704 in her campaign, and her political committee, Citizens for a Progressive Florida, had raised $104,315.
She’s getting backing from liberal groups such as the state Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus, which has published studies favorably comparing her stands on issues to Crist’s, along with the National Organization for Women and Democratic colleagues including Tampa state Sen. Arthenia Joyner.
Other liberal groups, however, have gone with Crist as their best hope of beating Scott, including leading gay rights groups.