Charlie Crist cruises in Democratic primary win, but race against Rick Scott is tough toss-up

Florida Democrats made it official Tuesday: They want a former Republican governor to beat the current Republican governor.

Heading into Tuesday’s primary election, Charlie Crist’s win over longtime Democrat Nan Rich was never in doubt. Only the size of his double-digit win — about 50 percentage points — was in question.

The general election pitting Crist against Gov. Rick Scott is far less certain. It’s close to a tie race. And it’s brutal.

Amid his cakewalk of a primary, Crist has had to deal with the bitter reality of Scott’s multi-million campaign juggernaut, which has spent nearly $28 million since November, trashing the Democrat on the airwaves from the moment he officially entered the race.

Crist thanked Rich in his acceptance speech and assailed Scott for everything from immigration policy to voting rights to abortion opposition.

“The only time my opponent isn’t looking out for the special interests is when he’s looking out for those who share his extreme out-of-touch tea-party ideology,” said Crist, pledging that “in 70 days, we want to make Florida Scott-free.”

Earlier, at a campaign stop in Tampa, Scott contrasted the jobs gained during his term with the jobs lost when Crist was governor during the Great Recession.

“Charlie gives great speeches. He’s really good at it. But there’s no action. He lost 832,000 jobs,” said Scott, who faced token Republican opposition from utter unknowns Yinka Abosede Adeshina and Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder.He defeated them with 88 percent of the vote.

Republicans drew an added measure of comfort from Scott’s win because early returns showed he won about 200,000 more votes in his under-the-radar primary than Crist and about 127,000 more Republicans voted statewide than Democrats — even though Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 455,000 in Florida. The turnout in the low-turnout primary, Republicans said, is a sign that their voters are more-enthusiastic about going to the polls.

The campaign will only get tougher for Crist from this point on, said Alex Sink, the former Florida chief financial officer who lost to Scott in a 2010 squeaker of an election.

“If we think we’ve seen lots of negative ads about Charlie, the Republicans are going to double down. They’ve saved their worst for last,” Sink said.

During that campaign season four years ago, Crist left the GOP to become an independent in his failed bid for U.S. Senate. He became a Democrat after helping President Barack Obama win re-election in Florida.

Asked if she ever thought the party’s nominee would have been a former Republican governor, Sink quickly responded: “No. But it’s Florida.”

Rich, a former state senator and representative, also sounded surprised by the intensity of Democrats’ support for Crist. Two minutes after the polls closed, the Associated Press called the election, with Crist leading 75-25 percent. She, too, said she backed Crist.

“We need to show unity so that we can defeat Rick Scott,” Rich said.

Not only is the metamorphosis of a Republican-governor-turned-Democratic-nominee a first in Florida’s unpredictable politics, so is the fact that the two major candidates have each been governor for four years and are essentially seeking second terms simultaneously.

While each solidifies his base and tries to snatch as many independent voters as possible — anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of the electorate — Crist and Scott also have to warily eye the Libertarian Party’s nominee, Adrian Wyllie, who could draw as much as 9 percent of the vote, according to one recent poll.

Other uncertainties: Whether Crist’s association with the unpopular Obama will hurt or help him and whether improving economic indicators will give Scott more of a boost.

Scott likely leads Crist by an inside-the-error margin amount of a few percentage points or so, thanks in good measure to Scott’s ad barrage that began in earnest in mid March. A shadowy outside group called “Progressive Choice” and a Tampa Bay Republican state senator’s political committee got their shots in as well, bringing the total spent against Crist to more than $10 million in the primary.

But Crist, even after all of the negative ads, is viewed more favorably than Scott. Including this election, Crist has run for statewide office six times and held three different statewide posts. Crist is favored in his home base of Tampa Bay, the ultimate swing area of the ultimate swing state.

The three previous candidates for governor also hailed from the Tampa Bay region, but unlike them, Crist has made turnout and outreach in South Florida a centerpiece of his campaign. South Florida is rich in Democratic voters, but they’re not reliable and turnout is often below the statewide average, especially during midterms.

Had the three South Florida counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach voted at the statewide average in 2010, Sink likely would have beaten Scott by almost 250,000 votes statewide. Instead, Sink lost by 61,550 votes.

If Crist is able to roll up solid margins in Tampa Bay, South Florida and the Orlando area — the state’s most-populous regions — it makes Scott’s path to re-election far tougher. Crist’s staff is also populated with former Obama campaign hands who have twice won Florida, owing in good measure to strong South Florida turnout.

Crist’s early South Florida outreach effort paid off Tuesday, even in Rich’s precinct.

At the Weston Branch Library, where Nan Rich is registered to vote, there was plenty of support for Charlie Crist.

“He is someone who can give Scott a good race,” said John Chang, 44, a Weston resident and surgeon. Chang supported Crist when he was the Republican governor.

Gean Ridley, 49, another Weston resident, also supports Crist’s policies, but said that it’s also about who can defeat Republican Rick Scott.

“Nan Rich is a good politician. But I believe Crist has a better chance of winning,” Ridley said.

Rich won her precinct, but appeared to be losing her home county of Broward by about 50 percentage points, Miami-Dade by 56 points and Palm Beach by about 60.

In Weston, Joyce Walsh-Portillo, 59, gave her vote to Rich, because, “Crist has flipped-flopped. I don’t think he has been consistent at all throughout the years,” she said.

Despite Crist’s big advantages over Rich, Democratic voters like William Williams Jr., 49, still aren’t overly enthusiastic.

“Crist isn’t the best for us,” Williams said when he voted Tuesday at First Baptist Church of Greater Miami. “But he isn’t the worst.”

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Melhor Leonor and Adrianne Richardson contributed to this report.

Democrats react to Charlie Crist primary victory

“I congratulate Charlie Crist on his strong victory tonight. Democrats across Florida are ready to work harder than we’ve ever worked to elect Charlie Crist governor of Florida.

“I commend Senator Nan Rich on running a campaign of principle, courage, and tireless effort. In sixteen years in the state legislature, she stood strong for the middle class and for all those struggling to get into the middle class. All Florida Democrats respect and admire Nan for her work for our state.

- Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant

“I would like to congratulate all of the Democratic candidates who won their primary contest tonight, including the next governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, and the next lieutenant governor of Florida, Annette Taddeo. Over the course of this campaign, Charlie and Annette have embraced policies that will help Florida’s middle class families, a stark contrast to the current governor, Republican Rick Scott, who is beholden to special interests and radical Tea Party ideology.”

- Democratic National Chair U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

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