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Florida Democrats vote Charlie Crist to take on Gov. DeSantis in November

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Florida, the stage is now set for one of the biggest gubernatorial contests in this year's elections. Democrats have chosen Charlie Crist to oppose incumbent Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. Crist previously served as Florida's governor more than a decade ago as a Republican but later switched parties. NPR's Greg Allen reports Democrats are hoping Crist's moderate tone and familiarity to voters will help them unseat one of the nation's most outspoken conservative governors.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: During the primary, Charlie Crist's opponent tried to raise questions with voters about his Republican past. It didn't work. Crist coasted to a big win by almost 25 points. Last night, he told Floridians the stakes in this election couldn't be higher.

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CHARLIE CRIST: Our fundamental freedoms are literally on the ballot, my friends. A woman's right to choose - on the ballot. Democracy - on the ballot. Your rights as minorities are on this ballot.

ALLEN: Crist has held a variety of elected positions in the state over three decades. He was elected governor as a Republican in 2006 but left office after one term to run for the U.S. Senate. He lost the nomination to Marco Rubio. He later changed parties and was elected to Congress as a Democrat. He's likable, well-known throughout the state - a consummate retail politician. Democrats hope he'll make a welcome contrast to the pugnacious governor, Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis, who appears to be laying the groundwork for an eventual presidential bid, has built a national profile. He's a regular on Fox News, attacking the media, the Biden administration, corporations and anyone that doesn't share his conservative values. Last week, he was in Pennsylvania, campaigning with the Republican gubernatorial nominee there, controversial election-denier Doug Mastriano.

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RON DESANTIS: We must fight the woke in our schools, we - woke in government agencies. We can never, ever surrender to woke ideology.

ALLEN: Florida's economy post-COVID has done well. Unemployment is at a historic low, and the state has a $22 billion budget surplus. But there are persistent problems, including low wages, a lack of affordable housing and spiking homeowner's insurance rates in a hurricane-prone state. Mac Stipanovich, a former Republican political strategist, says don't expect DeSantis to spend much time on those bread-and-butter issues.

MAC STIPANOVICH: What you're going to see in the general election in Florida, and I suspect all across the country, is the culture war on steroids.

ALLEN: DeSantis slams Democrats, including Crist, for opposing his decisions during the pandemic to send students back to class, to ban vaccine and mask mandates and any rules limiting businesses from restaurants to theme parks.

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DESANTIS: Instead, they're basically running as an extension of Joe Biden. And I don't think that that's going to be something that is going to fly.

ALLEN: In Florida, DeSantis' approval numbers - around 50% - are significantly higher than Biden's - 38% - according to one recent poll. But appearing on CNN today, Crist said he believes Biden will help him win.

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CRIST: He's a good man. He's a great man. He's a great president. I can't wait for him to get down here. I need his help. I want his help.

ALLEN: Democrats and Crist have a big challenge ahead, beginning with money. DeSantis has a huge lead in fundraising. And after years as a swing state, almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, Florida has tilted red in recent years. Republicans now outnumber registered Democratic voters. Even so, as one voter emerged from the polls yesterday, Democrat Deanndria Mujahid said she believes her party can unseat DeSantis.

DEANNDRIA MUJAHID: I'm an optimist, and I believe so, yes. You know, I don't believe in the scare tactics and whatnot. And I'm really hoping that people can actually stand up and actually see what's truly going on.

ALLEN: History is not on their side. The last Democrat elected governor in Florida was Lawton Chiles, and that was nearly three decades ago. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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