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Crist or Fried? Today's Democratic primary will decide who will face DeSantis in November

Charlie Crist, left hugging a woman, and Nikki Fried, right, speaking at the podium
Daylina Miller, WUSF Public Media / News Service of Florida
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Two of the state's more high profile Democrats — Charlie Crist, left, and Nikki Fried — are competing for the opportunity to challenge Ron DeSantis in November.

For more than two decades, the Florida governor's mansion has been occupied by a Republican. Today, two of the state's more high profile Democrats hope to take a step closer to changing that.

Florida's Democratic primary pits Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried against St. Petersburg Congressman Charlie Crist, who served as governor of Florida between 2007 and 2011, most of it as a Republican.

Crist left the party in 2010, to run as an independent against Marco Rubio for the U.S. Senate. He made another run for governor in 2014, this time as a Democrat but lost to now U.S. Republican Sen. Rick Scott.

Crist won a seat to the U.S. House in 2016 and has been a reliable vote for the Democratic Party’s agenda ever since.

FLORIDA PRIMARY: Key election results across Florida

In recent days, some new polls show Fried has narrowed the lead Crist has held for most of the Democratic primary campaign. A lawyer, and former lobbyist for the medical marijuana industry, has positioned herself as “something new” for Florida.

Fried calls herself the only "pro-choice" candidate in television ads and she frequently hammers Crist over his past support for conservative policies including on abortion.

In July, Florida's new 15-week abortion ban went into effect.

That, coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, has been a focal point of this primary.

The candidates sparred over the issue in a recent debate.

"Why do Republicans like Ron DeSantis not honor and respect a woman's right to choose? A woman's right to choose is at stake. I'm for it I'll fight for it," Crist said.

"You know Charlie, I'm not definitely not going to let you rewrite history, Fried countered. "That is not accurate. He did veto a piece of legislation, after he left the Republican Party, not because he saw the light, but because he saw the polls."

Crist has voted consistently in favor of abortion rights while in Congress and is endorsed in Tuesday's race by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But as Florida's one-time governor, he appointed several conservative judges to Florida's Supreme Court, which is expected to hear a legal challenge to Florida's ban.

Crist supporters meanwhile have been highlighting some of Fried’s connections to GOP politicians — including donating to several Republican candidates when she was a lobbyist. And, for a cordial working relationship she once had with Florida congressman and Trump loyalist Matt Gaetz.

But William March, a political analyst and reporter who has covered state politics for 30 years, says when people cast their ballots today, they'll likely have another politician top of mind.

"For a lot of Democrats, electability against Ron DeSantis is the big issue — maybe the biggest issue — particularly for primary voters", March said.

DeSantis is believed to be eyeing a presidential run in 2024 and is known nationally for his increasingly hard-right stances on education, voting and abortion.

And for Crist and Fried, defeating the incumbent will be an uphill battle. Florida Republicans have about 230,000 more registered voters than Democrats.

Even so, March says he thinks reports that Democrats can't win in Florida are exaggerated. Especially since the state also has almost 4 million voters who are not affiliated with either party.

"A lot of the races have been very close, so have the Presidential races and voters have gone for progressive issues like medical marijuana and restoring felon voting rights," March said. "And there is no question that abortion is affecting voters. I'm seeing it generate activism even in local races."

In the final days of the campaign, Crist and Fried have found something in common.

Each claims they're the only candidate who can defeat DeSantis.

Our journalists are independent, curious, respectful, and accountable to you. We’re committed to keeping you at the center of this conversation on democracy, staying in touch through surveys, social media, and in-person events. We won’t be chasing politicians, but instead we’ll tell stories based on the questions you want answered.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.