How Charlie Crist, Nikki Fried seek to beat DeSantis in 2022 election – Tallahassee Democrat

TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s deepening property insurance woes and the future of abortion rights have handed Democrats Charlie Crist and Nikki Fried fresh campaign themes in a bid to grab the attention of voters heading into the Aug. 23 primary contest.

The ripped-from-the-headlines tactics used by the two contenders also may be giving Democratic voters something they desperately need: Hope that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis can be defeated this fall.

“Insurance costs are animating a lot of voters,” said Cynthia Busch, of Plantation. “And abortion rights is huge. So they’re both right to be talking about these issues.”

Busch, a former Broward County Democratic chair, is managing the Congressional District 23 campaign of Democrat Ben Sorensen. Busch said phone banking shows that the overall cost of housing and the future of abortion in Florida are top of the mind for many voters.

“It’s a turnout election,” she said. “Crist and Fried know they’ve got to find the people who are going to be there for them. You have to give people a reason to vote.”

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Crist and Fried are vastly out-financed by DeSantis, who has a stunning, $128 million cash-on-hand. Most match-up polls also show that whoever wins the Democratic primary is on course to lose in November.

But DeSantis is suddenly hitting some turbulence. He’s failed to stabilize a homeowners’ insurance market where 400,000 households have already lost coverage and he’s avoided fully responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection in June of the constitutional right to abortion.

“A lot of people are fired up about the decision overturning Roe v. Wade,” said Paul Bane, president of the Manatee County Democratic Club, referring to the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

“That would seem to give Fried an advantage in the primary, since she’s talking a lot about protecting abortion rights. But I know a lot of people think Crist is the one who can raise money and has the name recognition to defeat DeSantis in November,” Bane said.

Bane, however, conceded that DeSantis looks unstoppable at the moment.

“But a lot of things can happen in the last few months of a campaign,” he added.

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Florida hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in 28 years and President Biden’s unpopularity in polls heading into the midterm elections is certainly a drag for most state Democrats, no matter if Crist or Fried becomes the nominee.

Huge disparity in fundraising

While DeSantis is sitting on a campaign bank roll fattened by his image as a likely White House contender in two years, Democratic campaign coffers are lean. Crist has about $7.2 million cash-on-hand, compared to $2.8 million for Fried.

But the two Democrats may be getting help from a combustible news cycle.

Fried jumped on Tuesday’s vote in Kansas that protected the right to get an abortion there, with voters rejecting a measure that would have allowed that state’s Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten abortion restrictions or ban it outright.

“Voters in Florida want a pro-choice governor,” Fried tweeted within hours of the vote, noting she also just received the endorsement of the advocacy organization, VOTEPROCHOICE.

“And last night’s vote in Kansas proves that it transcends partisan politics,” she added.

Crist also responded quickly after the financial rating firm Demotech recently warned that it may downgrade as many as 17 Florida property insurers. DeSantis and state officials first voiced outrage at the agency.

But then they were forced to scramble to provide reinsurance for troubled companies through the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance, Corp., Florida’s insurer of last resort and now close to being the largest insurance provider in the state.

While Demotech paused the sweeping downgrade, it has since moved ahead and reduced the ratings marks Monday for three major companies, showing a declining confidence in their ability to pay potential claims.

Homeowners’ insurance is triple the national average in parts of Florida. With many Floridians struggling to not only find insurers, but then pay thousands of dollars for coverage, Crist is looking to tap voter frustration by blaming the governor.

Special session failed to fix

DeSantis called a special session of the Legislature in May and measures approved were favorable to companies — cutting their lawsuit exposure and adding more out-of-pocket costs for homeowners making repairs.

But industry problems endure.

“What has DeSantis done? Zero,” Crist said last month, during his only televised debate with Fried.

Crist added, “He actually, with his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate, made it more difficult for Florida consumers to be able to get what the insurance companies are supposed to pay them anyway.”

Crist, a Republican governor of Florida from 2007-11 before becoming a Democrat and member of Congress since 2016, has long cast himself as a consumer advocate. He faced a similar homeowners’ insurance crisis during his years in the executive office, and took the unusual step of converting Citizens into a competitor to private insurers, and ordered rate reductions.

Although his then-fellow Republicans in the Legislature were uneasy with Citizens’ growth and its potential liability to taxpayers, Crist now is campaigning to again make Citizens a worthy option for homeowners, not solely a last resort company.

He also would require large insurers that sell auto insurance — a profitable line in Florida — to also insure homes. But can Crist’s promises draw voters eager for any solution to rising costs?

“What’s on the minds of Floridians is their premiums,” said Dr. Chuck Nyce, an expert on insurance and risk management at Florida State University. “They don’t know any of this back-office type stuff about how the industry works.

“In fact, most people probably don’t even know their homeowners’ insurance company. But from a political standpoint, it’s the cost, and when that is going up like it is now, that’s getting people’s attention,” he added.

DeSantis mostly stays out of the fight

DeSantis, who has no August primary opponent, hasn’t said much about the heightened attacks from his opponents. His campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment, but spokeswoman Lindsey Curnutte earlier dismissed Crist’s property insurance criticism.

“Charlie’s attacks are ironic coming from the man who single-handedly booted property insurance companies out of Florida with his anti-free market policy experiment in 2007,” Curnutte said.

Crist, better financed and whose campaign polls show him leading Fried, has largely looked past his primary opponent and focused his campaign messaging on DeSantis.

By contrast, Fried, whose internal polls track a closer race with Crist, is fighting more of a two-front battle. She’s ridiculed DeSantis’ conservative policies, but also is trying to keep the heat on Crist over abortion rights.

Crist has described himself as “pro-life,” but has earned top ratings in Congress from abortion rights supporters. In a setback for Fried, two prominent organizations, the Florida Planned Parenthood PAC and Ruth’s List Florida, have decided not to endorse anyone in the Democratic primary for governor.

Leaders of these groups say defeating DeSantis is the priority and having the strongest Democratic challenger also is a must. They say they are confident that whoever gets the August nomination will be a defender of abortion rights.

Rising anxiety over abortion rights

But there is rising anxiety about the future of abortion in Florida, advocates say. Fried is banking that these concerns will bring out more of her voters this month in what is usually a low-turnout primary.

DeSantis signed into law in April a measure banning most abortions in Florida after 15 weeks of pregnancy, beginning July 1, down from 24 weeks.

DeSantis has not commented on what stricter limits he’d support going forward, instead deflecting questions by saying he is focused on defending the new law against court challenges.

But he also said following the Supreme Court ruling that he will “work to expand pro-life protections,” in Florida.

Abortion opponents in Florida say they expect DeSantis to propose tighter restrictions on the procedure after the November elections. A University of North Florida poll earlier this year showed 57% of Floridians opposed to the 15-week limit — putting DeSantis at odds with voters and helping explain his reluctance to talk much about what he might do in a second term.

“This question is the greatest difference between myself, Charlie and Ron,” Fried said in last month’s debate. “I have been pro-choice my entire life. I have made sure that I’ve stood on the side of women.”

Fried’s first TV ad of the campaign also highlighted her defense of abortion rights — and her potential to be Florida’s first woman governor, if elected.

More Democrats now paying attention

A July survey by Kaiser Family Foundation shows that abortion access is a growing issue in this year’s elections — particularly among Democratic voters.

While 65% of the public disapprove of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, 77 percent of Democrats now say abortion access is very important to their vote, up from 50% in February. Democratic women voters are even more focused — with 82% concerned about access, compared with 55% five months earlier, the poll found.

Only 33% of Republicans say abortion access is a critical voting issue for them. And Republican women voters are even less motivated to vote since the Supreme Court’s decision.

The KFF poll found only 44% now say access to abortion is very important to their vote, compared with 60% in February. That suggests that the recent decision made the issue less significant for a group that largely wants to restrict abortion, and see that now happening in many states.

But inflation and gas prices remain the top issues for voters, the KFF poll showed. And that may not be good for Democrats.

Bane, the Manatee County Democratic, said that at this point, he’s trying to be realistic about his party’s chances of defeating DeSantis, a polarizing executive who has achieved GOP stardom.

“I don’t know if these issues like homeowners’ insurance and abortion are enough to defeat him in November,” Bane said. “But if it makes it close, that could really hurt him, especially if he wants to run for president in two years.”

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

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