Tuesday’s primaries were just canapés before November’s main course. Florida’s general election will be headlined by perhaps the most watched gubernatorial race in the country, and one that could have implications beyond who is Florida’s chief executive.
Both parties saw candidates supported by their leadership largely cruise toward getting elected or at least securing nominations in competitive contests. Democratic Party infighting is likely to ease now that U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist has secured the nomination for governor and state Sen. Lauren Book came out ahead in one of the most toxic Florida legislative primaries.
GOP figures such as agriculture commissioner candidate Wilton Simpson, U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds and many others defeated primary opponents handily. Moreover, Republicans made inroads in local elections across the state, thanks in part to Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, either one of whom could be their party’s Presidential nominee in 2024.
Now, here are five takeaways following this week’s primary election:
1) Crist needs national support in uphill battle against DeSantis
Crist thoroughly dominated Nikki Fried for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, but he’ll need to replenish his campaign funds as he prepares to take on Gov. Ron DeSantis, a national conservative hero.
DeSantis is on track to break national gubernatorial fundraising records without self-financing, having amassed $165.6 million to date. Crist is sitting with $1.45 million across his campaign and political committee. Political experts now say Crist will have to focus on abortion and unpopular parts of DeSantis’ record to quickly raise money from national Democratic donors.
“Crist will need to convince national Democratic donors that he has a chance to beat DeSantis – or that they need to at least try to politically damage DeSantis now before he officially starts to run for president,” University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett told the News Service of Florida.
Crist came out swinging the morning after clinching the nomination, appearing to make just that appeal to national Democrats. “He is on the battlefield of hate, and I am on the battlefield of love,” Crist said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, one of several media appearances on Wednesday. “If he wants to run on hate and culture wars and dividing people, and making people hate each other, that's his turf. It's not mine. I'm on a different plane, I’m on a different turf, and it's what Floridians deserve.”
DeSantis and Florida Republicans have also unveiled one line of attack they are going to be using against Crist – comparing him to President Joe Biden, who lost Florida by more than three points in 2020. During a press gaggle following Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting and before results came in, DeSantis pinned both Crist and Fried to the commander-in-chief. “They’re basically running as an extension of Joe Biden, and I don’t think that is going to be something that is going to fly,” DeSantis said. Florida Republicans are making similar attacks, including unveiling a new ad to run state-wide that claims Crist would impose “Biden’s destructive policies on Florida.”
2) DeSantis, Trump pack a punch for GOP candidates
The support of the country’s two current largest Republican political figures made a difference for Florida Republicans in races across the Sunshine State, maintaining a MAGA hold on red congressional seats and making inroads on school boards.
School board candidates backed by DeSantis saw success across the state, with 19 of the 30 he supported winning outright, with six more of his candidates headed to a runoff. The victories included a clean sweep for conservatives in three Sarasota County races and two victories in Miami-Dade, flipping both school boards to a conservative majority. The 1776 Project PAC, which targets critical race theory and backed candidates in those races, tweeted that Miami-Dade is now the largest county with a conservative-majority school board in America.
Outside of school board races, DeSantis’ endorsement helped anoint the winner in Jacksonville’s Florida House District 16. Kiyan Michael ran away with the three-person race that included a former state representative, taking 47% of the Republican vote.
Trump-backed candidates in Florida also took the day, with all 14 candidates he endorsed that did not run unopposed winning their primaries. His continued support of Republican incumbents that voted to overturn the 2020 election, including U.S. Reps. Byron Donalds, Scott Franklin, Matt Gaetz, Kat Cammack and others, paid dividends, as not one of them got less than 66% of Republican primary support. The former president’s backing also helped Anna Paulina Luna secure the Republican nomination for Florida's 13th District in a four-way race where she finished 11 points higher than her runner-up.
3) Maxwell Frost continues trend of young electeds on the political extremes
In a period in U.S. politics where Congress is the oldest it has ever been, the more conservative and progressive wings of the Democratic and Republican parties have made gains by electing some of the youngest members of the legislative branch in decades.
New York elected Republican Elise Stefanik and Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both of whom made history for how young they were when they were elected. Stefanik was 30 when she took office in 2015 after becoming the youngest woman elected to Congress. Ocasio-Cortez beat her a few years later in 2018, when she was elected at age 29. North Carolina’s Madison Cawthorn was a rising Republican star and at age 25 became the youngest congressperson in generations, although scandal tanked his political career.
Florida now has its own claim to fame, with Maxwell Frost winning the Democratic primary in Orlando’s heavily blue 10th Congressional District. The former national organizing director of March for Our Lives and supporter of progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, Frost beat off opponents that had longer histories in Florida Democratic politics, including state Sen. Randolph Bracy and former U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown and Alan Grayson. Likely to dominate the general election, Frost is set to become the first member of Gen-Z in Congress, and only the second 25-year-old in Congress since 1975.
Having already garnered support from prominent progressives like U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and having enjoyed extensive coverage from national media due to his Gen-Z status, the groundwork has been laid for Frost to become a rising star in national progressive circles and Democratic politics.
4) Don’t count out the Democrats – yet
After the numbers mostly were in, the pundits and the Twitterati made much ado over the fact that more registered Republicans had voted in the primary race for agriculture commissioner (1.6 million) than Democrats had voted for governor (1.5 million). Were reports of the death of the state’s Democratic Party greatly exaggerated? Daniel Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida, thinks so.
“Certainly the Democratic gubernatorial primary was the marquee statewide battle,” Smith told City & State. “And one would've thought Democrats would be turning out … but we have to put it in perspective: Democrats always underperform in terms of overall turnout of their registered voters. In primary elections, Republicans in Florida have more super voters, let's call them, who tend to be whiter and older. So those things correlate to turning out in elections.”
The real test may be in November, Smith adds. Many Democrats “are the ones who are going to be motivated by recent events,” such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade. “Other issues – such as high inflation, the cost of gasoline, home prices – may hurt Democrats’ chances.” Another wild card is the no-party voters, and “there's nothing that this primary can tell us about them,” Smith said, since Florida is a closed primary state.
“Democrats traditionally, both in primaries and general elections, do not turn out their numbers as much as Republicans,” he said. “There are a lot of socioeconomic factors that lead to lower turnout. There are a lot of structural election administration factors that lead to lower turnout for the core constituents that make up the Democratic Party. So will Democrats turn out in November like they did in 2018? Will no-party (voters) turn out and support Democrats because of some of the substantive issues at play? We don't know that yet. And we really can't. We really can't infer too much from the August primary.”
5) Did the “race to the right” backfire for some hard-right candidates?
A number of hyper-partisan Republicans lost their primary races Tuesday: Far-right activist and conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer fell to establishment politician Dan Webster in the 11th Congressional District. State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, who – as WESH reported – “called for defunding the FBI after the search of Mar-a-Lago and promoted false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election,” lost to defense contractor Cory Mills for the 7th Congressional District. And state Sen. Kelli Stargel, who this year helped pass a bill that largely bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, fell to former Secretary of State Laurel Lee in the 15th Congressional District primary.
Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and a lifelong Republican who left the party after Trump won the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, says the Republican Party, particularly in Florida, is the party of Trump – and these candidates aren’t Trump.
“I think it goes back to what (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell talked about,” Paulson says. “Candidate quality makes a difference. And these people were not seen as quality candidates. They were just seen as people who (kissed) the ring and hoped for the best but got the worst.” To be sure, however, not all ultra-conservatives were knocked out. The Trump-endorsed Anna Paulina Luna won her primary for the 13th Congressional District, and Mills – who beat Sabatini – has told the Orlando Sentinel he doesn’t consider Democrat Joe Biden to be the legitimate president of the United States.
Mills and Sabatini “were aligned on 99% of the issues,” says Evan Power, who leads the county parties as the Republican Party of Florida's “chair of chairs.” “So what you're seeing is a group of (voters) being pulled further to the conservative movement.” With the losses of some hard-right candidates and victories by others, he adds, “some people think it's a mixed bag, but I would say conservative candidates are now winning and they're going to move the Republican Party further right. I think that’s a good thing. What I hear when I go county by county, talking to people, is people want Republican leaders, conservative leaders, who are willing to fight, and we're getting some of those people for the first time.”