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Charlie Crist’s bid for Florida governor faces early threats

Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist officially launches his comeback campaign for his old job early next week — his third bid for the office but the first as a likely underdog in what could be a crowded field.

Now a Democratic congressman, Crist is the biggest name to announce his candidacy but by no means the most talked-about. Democratic insiders are buzzing more about Rep. Val Demings running, and some former Crist loyalists are planning to work for her or for Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only state-level elected Democrat, who has been preparing for months to challenge Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Crist advisers say they understand the complications he faces. He’s a 64-year-old white man in a party that’s increasingly yearning for women candidates or people of color, two boxes that Demings, also 64, checks. And the Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat has lost his last two statewide races: his 2014 campaign to unseat then-Gov. Rick Scott and his decision to forego reelection as governor to run for U.S. Senate in 2010, when Marco Rubio chased him out of the GOP primary and beat him in the general election.

Crist advisers say he’ll take the race and his potential opponents seriously, but they point to his long record of running for office statewide — including his wins as education commissioner, attorney general and governor — as strengths that others don’t have. Crist’s voraciousness as a fundraiser and his solid name ID are unmatched, they say.

“Charlie is going to start this race twice as well-known as anybody else who’s running against him. So he’ll start with a significant advantage,” an adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the campaign’s thinking, said Saturday during a conference call with reporters.

Crist’s campaign on Saturday emailed donors a “Major Announcement with Charlie Crist” announcement scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday in St. Petersburg, his home. Earlier this week, POLITICO Playbook first reported Crist’s Tuesday announcement date.

Democrats say they like and appreciate Crist — who was a top surrogate for former President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012 and was an early backer of President Joe Biden’s campaign last year. But there’s a sense among many that his time might be past, especially if Demings enters the race.

“The one thing we know about politics is the people like new. And Val would be new,” said John Morgan, an Orlando trial lawyer and Democratic donor who once employed Crist.

Morgan is also a big a fan of Demings and was a strong advocate for her joining Biden’s ticket. Biden, instead, chose another Black woman running mate, Kamala Harris, who is also of South Asian descent. Asked what he’ll do if Demings and Crist both run, Morgan quipped, “move to Maui until it’s over.”

“Val will be formidable. But the thing about Charlie Crist is that no one goes out for money, fundraises, like Charlie,” Morgan said. “He will be nonstop. The campaign will be nonstop.”

This primary bid for Crist is vastly different than his 2014 race. That was the first time he ran as a Democrat statewide, yet Crist was able to crush a longtime Democratic state senator at the time, Nan Rich, who struggled to fundraise and catch fire.

In this race, Crist could face a Democrat who has won statewide and has started to generate social media excitement: Fried. And a top national Democrat told POLITICO that Demings has an “it factor” that shouldn’t be underestimated because of her starring role as a House impeachment manager in Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial and because of her unique background and national exposure as both a Black woman and as a law enforcement officer in the Black Lives Matter era.

There is also excitement among Demings’ growing base of support that her long law enforcement background, including serving as Orlando chief of police, will help knee-cap Republican’s increasing attempts to brand Democrats as anti-law enforcement crusaders eager to “Defund the Police.”

“Without question I think it’s a benefit for her,” said state Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat who this year sponsored a police reform bill lawmakers passed and awaits DeSantis’ signature. “Can you imagine Republicans trying to make her seem anti-police.”

Biden is also likely, but not guaranteed, to stay on the sidelines in the event of a primary between Crist, Demings and even Fried, according to one top adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign who discussed the president’s thinking on condition of anonymity.

“The president is a busy guy. And he’s a loyal guy. Charlie, Val and Nikki were all helpful to the campaign, so I don’t see space for him right now to get involved in a primary between them,” the adviser said.

Crist’s team compares his primary bid to that of Biden in 2020, when elite insiders and progressives on social media cast doubt on Biden’s chances of winning because he was a 78-year-old white man. But the Democratic primary electorate was more moderate in sensibility and more forgiving of Biden’s race and gender than many pundits anticipated.

Biden’s primary victory, however, was powered by the strong support of Black voters in the South. And if Demings runs, her advisers are counting on their strong support – a cornerstone of Andrew Gillum’s primary win in the crowded 2018 gubernatorial primary. About 28 percent of Democratic primary voters in Florida are Black.

Gillum went on to narrowly lose Florida to DeSantis three years ago, and Biden also lost the state in the general election to former President Donald Trump last year.

Crist’s team made sure to steer clear of criticizing Demings or Fried and instead focused on DeSantis. They said the governor’s poll numbers are “artificially high” and that Democrats will benefit in the midterms from Biden’s popular policies, which DeSantis has criticized.

“Running as a right-wing Republican is a double-edged sword,” said a Crist adviser, advancing the notion that Crist appeals to the moderate swing voters crucial to winning an election statewide in Florida.

Florida Democrats have long believed that the state is perfect for a moderate Democrat to win, but conservative Republicans have increasingly won the state, including in 2018, when Rick Scott unseated Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who was a portrait of Democratic centrism and moderation. At the same time, DeSantis defeated Gillum, the progressive heartthrob.

The Republican victories have dispirited Democrats, who have done little to conduct the voter registration efforts that were crucial to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 wins in Florida. Since 2012, only one Democrat has won a statewide race: Fried, a point of pride for her advisers.

One of Fried’s top consultants, Kevin Cate, worked for Crist’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign but decided early on to stick with the agriculture commissioner instead of joining his old boss.

“I hope he’s announcing a re-election campaign because he’s uniquely suited to hold FL-13 through redistricting and protect our Democratic majority in Congress,” Cate said. “However, if it’s as expected, I wish him nothing but the best.”

Crist is keeping on board Joshua Karp, who has served as a communications adviser to past Crist campaigns, and Sydney Throop, who worked on Crist’s congressional runs, and most recently worked on Pete Buttigieg’s failed 2020 presidential bid.

Others have made the decision not to work for Crist, whose political team has undergone a bit of a shakeup ahead of his third run for Florida governor. It is being led by Jim Margolis, a partner at Washington-based consulting firm GMMB and previous top adviser to former President Joe Biden. Austin Durrer, Crist’s congressional chief of staff, is expected to be campaign manager.

Crist’s top pollster will be Mike Bocian, who most recently did polling for Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s successful 2020 campaign. He replaces John Anzalone, who has been Crist’s longtime pollster but will not be involved in his 2022 bid for governor, sources tell POLITICO.

Ed Peavy, a prominent Democratic direct-mail consultant who has deep roots in Florida, including work for the state Democratic Party as well as campaigns for both Gillum and Fried in 2018, also backed away from Crist after it became clear Demings was likely preparing her run.

Peavy, who runs Connecticut-based Mission Control, pitched Crist to do direct-mail for his campaign, got the job, then later left when it became clear that Demings was likely to run for governor. Peavy had worked for Demings’ congressional campaigns, and did not want to work on a campaign against her, according to three sources familiar with his thinking.

Peavy’s decision to walk away from Crist in anticipation of a Demings campaign is part of early staff jockeying that comes ahead of any major political campaign, but signals how serious Democrats view two things: the likelihood that Demings runs, and how tough she would be to beat in a primary.

“He interviewed and was going to join the team, but has recently told Charlie he was not going to be on the team,” according to a Democratic consultant with direct knowledge of the decision. “It’s my understanding he left unsure if he had secured a spot on Val’s team, but he definitely was not going to work against her.”

Neither Peavy nor Demings returned requests seeking comment.

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