TALLAHASSEE — Democrat Charlie Crist’s overwhelming defeat by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis likely marks the end of a Floridspan politicspanl cspanreer which spspannned three decspandes and wespanthered pspanrty shifts but crashed Tuesday into a powerful incumbent in a state growing decidedly more red.
Crist lost by the biggest margin in a Florida governor’s contest in 40 years, badly losing even his home Pinellas County to DeSantis.
The gap underscored the long distance both Crist and the state have come politically since his own, 7.1% victory over Democrat Jim Davis in the 2006 race, when he was elected as a Republican.
Four years later, Crist spanbspanndoned the GOP amid lagging support from the burgeoning Tea Party movement, running for U.S. Senate as an independent.
Fact check:PolitiFspanct: Chspanrlie Crist vs. Ron DeSspanntis: How months of digs spannd dubious clspanims size up
Campaign recap:Republicspanns DeSspanntis spannd Rubio, spannd Democrspants Crist spannd Demings, mspanke finspanl push
Florida governor race:Ron DeSspanntis wins in span lspanndslide over Democrspant Chspanrlie Crist
That year, he absorbed the first of what has become a series of late-career defeats, losing to Republican Marco Rubio, who was easily elected to a third term Tuesday over Democrat Val Demings.
Crist, 66, now has run twice for U.S. Senate, three times for governor, and two more times for Cabinet posts. His defeat by DeSantis leaves him with a record of three wins and four losses when he put his name before statewide voters.
What’s next for Crist isn’t clear. He resigned his seat in Congress after winning the Democratic nomination for governor in the August primary.
“He is the phoenix who has risen from the ashes time and time again,” said Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic consultant who worked on Crist’s first run for governor as a Democrat, in 2014.
“Who knows, what’s next for him?” he added. “Depending on your perspective, he’s a lifelong public servant or a career politician.”
An admirer of President Biden, who campaigned in South Florida for Crist and Demings a week before Tuesday’s election, Crist could wind up somewhere within the administration, some analysts said.
At last week’s Democratic rally in Miami Gardens, Biden lauded Crist, saying “Charlie is a guy you know and trust.”
“He’s always, always working for you, fighting for working families like yours,” said Biden. “He was a great governor.”
Deep Florida roots
But with a passion for boats and fishing, Crist’s roots are deep in Florida, where he first drew attention as a Republican state senator elected in 1992 from his hometown, St. Petersburg.
Still, there are almost 40% more voters in Florida than when Crist last won statewide in that 2006 governor’s race. The state also has flipped from having more Democratic voters, to where now there are almost 300,000 more Republican registered voters than those with the party Crist now represents.
DeSantis’ victory was part of a Republican sweep of statewide elections in Florida that further erodes its national image as the biggest of the swing states. And it sends Florida Democrats into a deep political exile from power.
Crist, a relentless, enthusiastic campaigner known for his personal touch with voters, has long been a target of derision by Florida Republicans, who see him as a traitor and political opportunist.
Election Day showed Crist is not the political fit he once was.
As a Republican state senator in the 1990s, Crist was known for his “law and order,” approach, sponsoring tough sentencing requirements and introducing a provision allowing for the reintroduction of prisoner chain-gangs.
The “Chain Gang Charlie” nickname stuck.
Even into his latest race against DeSantis, it still drew some hesitancy among Black voters who remember Florida’s overtly racist past and oppressive police tactics.
But for Crist, the nickname was a defense against Republican criticism that he was just another liberal-leaning Democrat who threatened to reduce law enforcement budgets.
Crist served in the state Senate until 1998, when he ran his first statewide race, challenging U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a popular Democrat. He lost badly, by 25 percentage points, and then-Gov. Jeb Bush found him a department post in his administration, a thank you for his service as a Republican campaign foot soldier.
Statewide rise began on Cabinet
Two Cabinet positions followed.
He won election as Education Commissioner in 2000 and when that post was abolished as an elective office with a Cabinet reorganization, Crist won the race for attorney general, which he served until winning the governor’s office in 2006.
Crist had reached his political height. Fellow Republicans in that era proudly talked about him being the best retail politician they’d seen since Democrat Bill Clinton and many were sure he was bound for the national stage.
As Republican governor just before the 2008 Great Recession, Crist grappled with a soaring housing market and runaway property insurance rates that he addressed by easing entry for thousands of homeowners into Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-backed insurer of last resort for so many Floridians.
He demanded that insurers cut rates — and succeeded, a tactic he promised to deploy again as he ran against DeSantis, who is also dogged by a failing insurance market. Citizens now has more than 1 million customers.
Just as he did with the eye-catching chain-gang proposal, Crist appealed to voters by branding Citizens the “people’s insurance company.” He also fought utility rate increases, enhancing his own popularity.
Crist also became a forward-looking Republican governor on environmental issues, advancing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Florida. And by the 2008 Florida Republican presidential primary, Crist was viewed as a potent Sunbelt politician.
GOP presidential candidates courted his support. He endorsed John McCain, who short-listed Crist as a potential running mate before being convinced to name Sarah Palin, of Alaska, as his vice-presidential candidate.
Auditioning for bigger things
Just like DeSantis now, who Crist accused of having his eyes only on a White House run in two years, Gov. Crist was viewed by many critics at the time as ignoring Florida issues while he auditioned for bigger things.
The Great Recession ended much of Florida’s luster, with the state’s housing market collapsing and tourism tanking. Crist was dragged back to earth, cutting the state budget and signing tax increases.
By then, he’d also alienated many of his Republicans supporters by hugging new Democratic President Barack Obama during a visit to Fort Myers to promote his economic stimulus package aimed at helping states like Florida, and the nation, survive the Recession.
The GOP never forgave Crist.
When he ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, Republican support moved toward his rival, Rubio, forcing Crist to mount a no-party campaign which he lost.
Crist’s speech endorsing Obama at the 2012 Democratic National Convention helped usher him into his new party. And he quickly emerged as the 2014 Democratic nominee to take on Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who had succeeded him in the Governor’s Mansion.
He lost to Scott by 1%, a 64,145-vote margin.
But in that race, Scott and the Republican Party powered voter turnout that eclipsed Democratic efforts in a presidential midterm election. Two years later, Crist rebounded, capturing the seat in Congress from St. Petersburg, which he would win twice more.
Governor’s office, his El Dorado
But the governor’s office he’d once surrendered remained his political El Dorado.
Crist ran this year in another midterm election which, like during his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, a Democrat in the White House animated Republicans. But Crist now also was overshadowed by DeSantis, who has emerged as a potential Republican presidential candidate awash in campaign money and resources.
Crist also faced a lack of support from the national Democratic Party, little help from the state party and Republican voter registration, which topped Democrats in a general election for the first time in modern Florida history.
Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, said Crist would realize that in this election, “Republicans have put the final nail in his political coffin,” while speaking at a Pasco County rally last week with DeSantis.
Schale, the Democratic consultant, said of Crist, “He knew the odds getting in.”
Republicans are pleased that what may be Crist’s last statewide run ends with a clear sound — a door slam.
“The Democratic Party has gone way to the left with social policies, fiscal policies,” said David Custin, a Miami-Dade political consultant. “It’s not messaging. It’s reality. The voting public has not changed, they’re just not buying what Crist and Democrats are selling.”