Florida Democrats will decide on Tuesday who would be best positioned to lead the fight against abortion in DeSantis

But the question of who is better suited to lead this fight against DeSantis — veteran Rep. Charlie Crist or Nikki Fried, the state’s commissioner of agriculture vying to become Florida’s first female governor — has sparked an uproar. bitter war of words between the two candidates and fueled a costly publicity battle that shaped the final weeks of their contest for the party’s nomination.

With a significant fundraising advantage and overwhelming support from elected Democrats, Crist seemed well-positioned to win the nomination a few months ago. Reliable and limited polling has made it difficult to determine where the race stands before Election Day, or how much voter sentiment has changed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the right of a abortion is not guaranteed by the US Constitution. But the dynamics of the race have changed significantly as voters and candidates have become lucid about the stakes in November.

“I feel like Nikki Fried is gaining momentum,” said Brad Coker, a Florida-based pollster for Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy. “Don’t count her. I wouldn’t bet my house on that, but if I had $100 I found under a rock, I’d bet it on Nikki Fried.”

For Fried, who stumbled as a candidate and was slow to recover, the Dobbs ruling gave her campaign new purpose, and she carried that momentum into the home stretch. She hammered Crist, a former Republican governor before becoming an independent and then a Democrat, on his complicated record on abortion issues. She frequently reminds voters that Crist once considered himself “pro-life” and that he appointed a pair of judges who decided to keep abortion restrictions.

“I’ve been pro-choice my whole life,” Fried said last month during the race’s only debate. “I made sure I stood on the women’s side. Charlie can’t say the same.”

Whether Fried’s push was too late remains to be seen. As of Monday, 970,000 Democrats had already voted by mail or on early voting sites (about 1.5 million Democrats voted in the 2018 primary). The barrage of criticism, however, penetrated enough that Crist felt the need to respond live. Throughout August, his campaign spent valuable advertising dollars on a 15-second defensive ad to refute Fried’s attacks.

“I vetoed anti-abortion legislation to protect your right to choose, and I have a perfect track record with NARAL and Planned Parenthood,” Crist says in the announcement. “Nikki knows I fought for your right to choose. More importantly, now you know that too.”

Roe’s downfall, though decried by Democrats, nevertheless provided much-needed tailwinds here to a party that has been floundering since losing the governor’s race to DeSantis by 32,000 votes four years ago. They watched DeSantis use the office to push an aggressively conservative agenda and catapult himself into the upper stratosphere of GOP presidential candidates while raking in an unthinkable amount of cash for his re-election — more than $132 million in hand Thursday. . Along the way, Republicans have for the first time overtaken Democrats among registered voters in the state and now enjoy a 200,000 voter advantage.

Democratic lawmakers, in a minority in both houses, were powerless when the legislature passed and DeSantis signed a 15-week abortion ban with no exceptions for rape and incest. The new law took effect on July 1 and remains in place despite a legal challenge.

But after the Dobbs decision, Democrats saw a flood of money flowing into their races and a renewed energy that showed in protests across the state. The outrage continued as the fallout from life after Roe materialized. And last week, the ramifications of another DeSantis-backed anti-abortion law, this one requiring parental consent for a minor to get an abortion, played out in public. A court has ruled that a 16-year-old Florida girl without parents was not mature enough to decide to terminate her pregnancy and denied her a waiver that would have allowed her to have an abortion.

To be clear, Democrats here care about one thing most: beating DeSantis and slowing his rise on the national stage. The back and forth between Crist and Fried over abortion, however, came to sum up the dueling arguments for the other’s candidacy.

Fried’s allies hope an upheaval over Crist could foreshadow the change of pitch in Florida, just as the country saw earlier this month when Kansas voters rejected an amendment seeking to remove the right to the abortion of the state constitution. They say Fried, as a woman who won four years ago when every other Florida Democrat lost, is uniquely positioned to capture that energy.

Dobbs’ decision “definitely was an inflection point,” said Kevin Cate, one of Fried’s top strategists. “The intensity after that happened was huge and you have people looking for someone to be their champion. It’s about meeting the moment.”

Yet much of the Florida Democratic establishment thinks otherwise. Most elected Democrats back Crist, the candidate who brought them to less than 64,000 votes as the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2014. The state’s largest labor groups also backed Crist over Fried, so does Barbara Zdravecky, the former CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest. and Central Florida, and Alex Sink, the state’s elected former chief financial officer who founded an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women who support abortion rights to run for office.

Most said they weren’t bothered by Crist’s complicated abortion rights history, instead focusing on his reliable record during his three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, while insisting on the fact that his work history from the middle will appeal to more voters.

“To me, it’s not, ‘You’re a woman, you check that box, I’ll support you,'” said state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who will lead House Democrats in Tallahassee this year. next. “It’s, ‘What are you bringing to the table holistically?’ For me, Charlie Crist is the best person to meet right now.”

Perhaps most remarkable is that the major groups mobilizing around abortion rights have chosen to remain neutral in the race.

State Rep. Kristen Arrington, one of the few elected officials to back Fried, said she would back Crist if he were the nominee, but fellow Democrats underestimate Fried’s appeal as a bigger face. costs.

“I don’t want to poop them. A lot of them made decisions before (Dobbs),” Arrington said. “But sometimes women can be their worst enemy and not support each other. Nothing against male candidates because they are great allies and we can’t do it alone, but I think it’s important to have women to the head. For too long, we’ve had men making decisions about our bodies.”

Crist and Fried exhausted almost all of their resources trying to win the primary, much of which was spent persuading Democratic voters about abortion. Meanwhile, DeSantis and the Florida GOP have already spent more than $10 million on digital and TV ads for the incumbent governor’s reelection campaign, about twice as much as Fried and Crist spent on airtime combined. , according to an analysis of data collected by AdImpact.

Despite limited investment in Florida so far, Democrats remain hopeful that next Wednesday, whoever the party and its campaign supporters will step in to help fund a campaign against DeSantis. A potentially motivating factor is that Florida, for now, remains one of the most permissive states to get an abortion in the South.

But some Crist supporters have privately expressed concern that the grueling fight against abortion in the primary has left the party fractured ahead of a tough general election.

“It’s too bad that in an effort to win political office, Nikki Fried is trying to undermine a fellow Democrat,” said Joshua Karp, a Crist campaign strategist. “Democrats are motivated to defend Roe at the polls. The only candidate capable of building this coalition is Charlie Crist and that’s why so many pro-choice leaders have backed him.”

CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.

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