Florida Democrats will decide Tuesday who would be best to take the fight against abortion to DeSantis

But the question of who is best suited to take that fight to DeSantis, veteran Rep. Charlie Crist or Nikki Fried, the state agriculture commissioner vying to become Florida’s first female governor, has sparked a bitter war of words between two candidates and fueled a costly publicity battle that has shaped the final weeks of his race for the party’s nomination.

Democratic voters in Florida will be the final arbiters on Tuesday when the state holds its primary, one of the last of the 2022 midterm cycle. The race has come to exemplify how the changing abortion landscape following the fall of Roe v. Wade this summer is livening up leftist politics and giving Democrats renewed optimism for their chances on key battlegrounds.

With a significant lead in fundraising and overwhelming support from elected Democrats, Crist seemed well-positioned to capture the nomination a few months ago. Limited reliable polling has made it difficult to determine where the race stands heading into Election Day, or how much voter sentiment has changed since the US Supreme Court ruled in June that a woman’s right to abortion is not guaranteed by the US Constitution. But the dynamics of the race have changed considerably as voters and candidates have realized the stakes come November.

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

For Fried, who stumbled out as a candidate and was slow to recover, Dobbs’ decision gave her campaign new purpose, and she has carried that momentum down the stretch. She has criticized Crist, a former Republican governor before becoming an independent and then a Democrat, for his complicated record on abortion issues. She frequently reminds voters that Crist once considered himself “pro-life” and that he appointed a couple of judges who failed to uphold abortion restrictions.

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

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Whether Fried’s push was too late remains to be seen. By Monday, 970,000 Democrats had already cast ballots by mail or at early voting sites (about 1.5 million Democrats voted in the 2018 primary). However, the barrage of criticism has penetrated far enough that Crist felt the need to respond on air. Throughout August, her campaign has spent valuable advertising dollars on a defensive 15-second commercial to refute Fried’s attacks.

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

Roe’s fall, though maligned by Democrats, has provided much-needed tailwinds here for a party that has been reeling since losing the gubernatorial race to DeSantis by 32,000 votes four years ago. They’ve seen how DeSantis used the office to push an aggressively conservative agenda and catapult himself into the upper stratosphere of Republican presidential contenders as he amassed an unthinkable sum of money for his re-election — more than $132 million available as of Thursday. Along the way, Republicans surpassed Democrats in the state’s registered voters for the first time and now hold a 200,000-voter lead.

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

But after Dobbs’ decision, Democrats saw a rush of money into their races and a renewed energy that manifested itself in protests across the state. The outrage has continued as a consequence of life after Roe materializes. And last week, the ramifications of another DeSantis-backed anti-abortion law, this one requiring parental consent for a minor to get an abortion, were made public. A court ruled that a 16-year-old Florida girl with no parents was not mature enough to decide to terminate her pregnancy and denied her an exemption that would have allowed her to have an abortion.

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To be clear, Democrats here care more about one thing: beating DeSantis and halting his rise to the national stage. Yet the back-and-forth between Crist and Fried over abortion has come to encapsulate the dueling arguments for each’s candidacy.

Fried’s allies hope a dislike for Crist could herald a change of course in Florida, much like the country saw earlier this month when Kansas voters rejected an amendment to remove abortion rights from the state constitution. They say Fried, as a woman who won four years ago when every other Democrat running in the entire state of Florida lost, is in a unique position to capture that energy.

Dobbs’ decision “was definitely a turning 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 finding the moment.”

However, much of the Democratic establishment in Florida believes otherwise. Most elected Democrats back Crist, the candidate who carried them to 64,000 votes as the party’s nominee for governor in 2014. The state’s largest labor groups have also backed Crist over Fried, as has Barbara Zdravecky, a former executive director of Planned Parenthood of Southwest. and Central Florida, and Alex Sink, a former state chief financial officer-elect who founded an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women who support abortion rights to run for public office.

Most have said they are unbothered by Crist’s complicated history on abortion rights, focusing instead on her credible record during her three terms in the US House of Representatives and insisting that her record working from the middle will attract more undecided 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 next year. “It’s, ‘What do you bring to the table holistically?’ For me, Charlie Crist is the best person to face the moment.”

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Perhaps most notably, the main groups mobilizing around abortion rights have chosen to remain neutral in the race.

State Representative Kristen Arrington, one of the few elected officials to endorse Fried, said she will support Crist if he is the nominee, but fellow Democrats underestimate Fried’s appeal as a fresher face.

“I don’t want to screw them up. A lot of them made decisions before (Dobbs),” Arrington said. “But sometimes women can be their own 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 in leadership. For too long, we’ve had men making decisions about our bodies.”

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

Despite limited investment in Florida to date, Democrats remain hopeful that on Wednesday, regardless of the candidate, the party and its election backers will step up to help finance a campaign against DeSantis. One potentially motivating factor is that Florida, for now, remains one of the most permissive states to obtain an abortion in the South.

But some Crist supporters have privately expressed concern that the tough fight over abortion in the primary has left the party fractured heading into a difficult general election.

“It’s unfortunate that in an effort to win political office, Nikki Fried would attempt to undermine a fellow Democrat,” said Joshua Karp, Crist’s campaign strategist. “Democrats are excited to defend Roe at the polls. The only candidate who can build that coalition is Charlie Crist and that is why so many pro-abortion leaders have endorsed him.”

CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.