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2 Democrats compete for the chance to unseat Florida Gov. DeSantis in November

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

States holding primaries today include Florida. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is seeking a second term. He barely won the first time four years ago, but has since made himself one of his party's national figures, fighting culture wars and showing up in 2024 presidential polls. But in order to position himself for the presidency, he would first have to win reelection, and Democrats are choosing his challenger. One is considered progressive and the other is a former Republican. Cathy Carter from our member station WUSF in Tampa reports.

CATHY CARTER, BYLINE: Florida's Democratic primary pits the state's agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, against U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida. 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. Senator Republican Rick Scott. Crist won his seat to the U.S. House in 2016 and has been a reliable vote for the Democratic Party's agenda ever since, as one of his campaign ads highlights.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Newspapers across Florida have endorsed Charlie Crist, the Democrat with the best chance of defeating DeSantis. Crist has been a solid pro-choice vote. Crist is the only choice for governor.

CARTER: In recent days, 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

NIKKI FRIED: I'm Nikki Fried. I'm your only statewide elected Democrat, only pro-choice Democrat, only Democrat to have never taken a dime from the NRA. I'll beat Ron DeSantis and be a governor you can finally be proud of.

CARTER: That reference to being, quote, "the only pro-choice candidate" has been a focus of the Fried campaign. 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. First, here's Crist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE CRIST: 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.

FRIED: You know, Charlie, I'm definitely not going to let you rewrite history. 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.

CARTER: Crist has voted consistently in favor of abortion rights while in Congress. 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 who has covered state politics for 30 years with several Florida newspapers, says when people cast their ballots today, they'll likely have another politician top of mind.

WILLIAM MARCH: For a lot of Democrats, electability against Ron DeSantis is the big issue, maybe the biggest issue, particularly for primary voters.

CARTER: 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 about 4 million voters who are not affiliated with either party.

MARCH: 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. And there is no question that abortion is affecting voters. I'm seeing it generate activism, even in local races.

CARTER: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Cathy Carter in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Cathy Carter
Cathy Carter is the education reporter for WUSF 89.7 and StateImpact Florida.