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Democrats Hope Charlie Crist Can Best Anti-LGBTQ+ Gov. Ron DeSantis

Charlie Crist
Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images

(CNN) National Democrats are looking for Charlie Crist to slow GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed Florida's "don't say gay" law in March.

(CNN) -- To take on the herculean task of challenging Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis this fall, Florida Democrats are going with someone familiar over "something new."

For the second time in eight years, Democratic voters will elect Charlie Crist as their nominee for governor, CNN projects, choosing the seasoned veteran over Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who was vying to become the state's first female governor. Crist now has just 11 weeks to unite his party, energize the Democratic base and convince independent voters that the state needs a new direction.

The stakes for Democrats are high, and not just in Florida, where DeSantis has already pushed through an aggressively conservative agenda and has vowed a second term will bring more restrictions on abortion and fewer on guns. National Democrats are also looking for Crist to slow DeSantis, one of the Republican Party's most-recognizable figures, before an anticipated campaign for the White House in 2024.

"This guy wants to be President of the United States of America," Crist said in his victory speech. "However, when we defeat him on November 8, that show is over."

The task will not be easy. DeSantis has amassed $132 million for the fall general election, a record sum for a gubernatorial candidate who isn't self-funded, and he has animated the Republican base more than any GOP politician not named Donald Trump. His party has surpassed Democrats in registered voters in Florida for the first time. And he can point to a state economy that appears to be booming, with more people moving to the state than anywhere in the country, record tourism numbers, and an unemployment rate of 2.7% -- almost a full point below the federal level.

But Democrats have argued that the prosperity has not been shared by all. With some of the country's fastest rising home prices and rents, Florida has become a paradise that many can no longer afford. A property insurance crisis has threatened coverage for millions of homeowners just as hurricane season reaches its zenith. LGBTQ Floridians say the DeSantis administration has made the state more hostile to them, while some women say new restrictions on abortion eliminate choice over their bodies and may force them to see through medically risky pregnancies.

Crist's argument against another four years of DeSantis is also predicated on Floridians longing for a less divisive tone from its leader. Throughout the Democratic primary, Crist and Fried depicted DeSantis as a bully and a despot who is far more focused on positioning himself to run for the White House than he is on governing the country's third largest state. Time and again, they have noted, DeSantis has forced the state's other branches of government to bend to his will, eliminating any checks on his executive power.

Earlier Tuesday, DeSantis predicted he would face Crist in the general election. During a news conference in Tallahassee, he dismissed Crist as "a guy that's been running for office for five decades, who is voting with (Joe) Biden 100% of time," and he made clear he intends to frame the race around his controversial coronavirus pandemic response.

Crist, he said, "opposed every decision I've made to keep this state open, to keep people's rights, respected their rights, to save jobs, to keep kids in school, to save businesses."

Inside his St. Petersburg watch party, Crist did not have to wait long for good news. By the time his campaign welcomed supporters into the Hilton conference room just after polls closed at 7 p.m., early voting returns strongly suggested it would be a drama free night. The crowd broke into cheers as a large screen displayed an overwhelmingly promising start to the count for Crist.

See full results in Florida here.

A repeat of the Biden playbook?

In choosing Crist, Democrats are betting a well-known and inoffensive nominee gives them the best chance to unseat a divisive but dynamic incumbent Republican. It's a playbook nearly identical to the one deployed successfully by Biden to defeat Trump in 2020.

"I've known him. I've met him. I trust him," Darla Price, a retiree from St. Petersburg, told CNN after she voted for Crist.

However, the Biden blueprint notably did not work in Florida. Trump won the state by a larger margin in 2020 than he did in 2016. Crist himself hasn't won a statewide general election in Florida in 16 years, though he has repeatedly tried.

For Crist, 66, Tuesday's victory is another chapter in one of the most unusual careers in American politics.

After decades as a Republican -- serving as a state lawmaker, education commissioner, attorney general and reaching the governor's office in 2007 -- Crist fell out of favor with his party for committing the cardinal sin of hugging a Democratic president, Barack Obama. He was defeated in a 2010 Republican primary for Senate by Marco Rubio and then lost in the general election as an independent.

But four years later he reemerged as the Democratic nominee to go up against his successor, then-Gov. Rick Scott. Crist fell 64,000 votes short of winning back his old job. In 2016, he then turned his attention to the House of Representatives and was thrice elected as a Democrat to represent his home in Pinellas County.

Many expected Crist's career would end in Congress. Instead, last May, he jumped into the race for governor -- a decision that at the time was panned by many Democratic officials and operatives in Florida as a relic of the past for a party that needed to look ahead. Fried, a 44-year-old who had only one previous campaign under her belt, leaned into the comparison with Crist and campaigned on the phrase, "Something new."

But as Fried struggled to make a case for her candidacy, Crist's campaign gained traction. He built a coalition of supporters throughout the state and across the party's factions: labor unions, environmental groups, Black faith leaders, prominent women leaders and elected officials of all stripes. Popular Democratic lawmakers like state Rep. Anna Eskamani and state Sen. Shevrin Jones, who were initially dismissive of Crist, endorsed him over Fried.

The US Supreme Court decision striking down the constitutional right to an abortion offered a reset of sorts for Fried. She sought to reframe the race around protecting abortion access and suggested Crist, who once called himself "pro-life," couldn't carry that fight to DeSantis.

Most primary voters were ultimately unconvinced.

Shortly after the polls closed in the Florida Panhandle at 8 p.m., Fried told her supporters in Fort Lauderdale that she had called Crist to congratulate him on winning the nomination. She strongly hinted this isn't the end of her time in the Florida political arena.

"Nobody ever broke a glass ceiling on the first pitch," Fried said.

(tm) & (c) 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Related: Fla. Gov. DeSantis Signs Historic 'Don't Say Gay Bill,' Enabling Hate

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