PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor
Charlie Crist announced his candidacy for governor on May 4, 2021. | AP

OPINION | Have Democrats already lost the governor’s race?

Published on June 5, 2022 at 9:28 pm
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Democrats are in a bad position vis-a-vis Ron DeSantis, and it seems to have them hamstrung as time starts to run out on the 2022 cycle.

The best evidence of that? The sleepy, seemingly preordained campaign for the gubernatorial nomination.

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All evidence suggests that former Republican Governor turned Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist will get yet another statewide run, but that’s more a factor of a lack of serious competition than a real affirmative case for Crist as the party’s 2022 standard bearer.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has been prone to gaffes, and state Sen. Annette Taddeo has yet to find her footing, with her launch effectively neutralized by this year’s active legislative calendar. Legislators cannot fundraise while they are in session, and special sessions this year have been all the rage. 

Crist has all the meaningful endorsements among local Democrats: state Sen. Audrey Gibson, Rep. Tracie Davis, City Councilmen Garrett Dennis and Reggie Gaffney, and on Friday he collected another no-surprises endorsement from former state senator and current congressional candidate Tony Hill at a roundtable event.

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How much mileage he’s getting out of these events is another matter. I was the only member of the media on hand Friday, and that was probably just as well. The event was scheduled for 12:30 p.m., it started at 1, and Crist showed up closer to 2, with a roundtable of speakers discussing business issues in the Black community in Crist’s absence.

When he did show up, he apologized for being late, saying he was “running on fumes,” which may have been accurate but was exactly the kind of phrase DeSantis would exploit in a general election context. The performance was not his best.

A clearly enervated Crist jumped from talking point to talking point in the event, getting bogged down in a gun control debate with multiple attendees, who didn’t appreciate the prospect of government limiting their ability to own assault weapons that they say are used for their personal protection.

What plays well for Joe Biden on a teleprompter may not play so well for Florida voters kicking the tires of a Democratic candidate, basically. 

Crist, by dint of being a frontrunner bordering on Hillary Clinton/Joe Biden presumptive nominee status, has been able to sidestep the debates Fried and Taddeo keep pressing for. Why should he debate? He’s well ahead by most metrics of the race, and he’s got endorsements on lock. 

After about an hour of roundtable, Crist took questions as he walked to his car, glib with the answers. When asked who he was looking at for lieutenant governor, he cheekily floated Tom Brady’s name, describing the time he met the Tampa Bay Bucs’ QB at the Biden White House. Asked about the sheriff opening in Jacksonville and whether DeSantis would be out of line for appointing a candidate such as T.K. Waters, Crist botched that question too, saying his appointee would simply be the person he trusted most to keep Duval County safe. And then he was gone, to the next event at the IBEW Hall.  

In an afternoon in Duval, with time among the finite commodities of a campaign, I’m not sure how many votes he earned. He didn’t earn much media. 

And I’m also not sure the current version of Crist is ready for DeSantis. Maybe Crist would have been a strong matchup for the DeSantis of 2018, who hadn’t figured out the demagogic appeal with any real consistency. But the DeSantis of 2022, honed to a sharp edge by the national speaking circuit and Fox News segments, is a more effective product. 

Check out any DeSantis rally, and there is typically a device off the top: a “two-minute hate” style rant, where the governor filets one in a series of luckless targets, ranging from the “Brandon” administration to “Woke Disney.” These little speeches are purposeful: They create another news hook, and it’s a hook that is ready for distribution to the conservative blogosphere and its broadcast amplifiers.

DeSantis can create four news stories in a 40-minute media conference, understanding that it’s essential to project dynamism and to drive the narrative. It is the bully pulpit, and whereas DeSantis was a dud as a backbencher congressman mewling about the Mueller probe, he is ratings gold in his current persona. 

This won’t last forever, of course. Republican politicians these days seem to have about an eight-year shelf life before the base decides they’re RINOs, and DeSantis’ answer to the planned obsolescence wrinkle in right-wing politics seems to be continual reinvention and pushing the envelope by setting up aggressive statist plays as populist responses to the outrages stemming forth from Dr. Anthony Fauci or whoever his villain of the day is. 

When I went to Israel three years ago with DeSantis, the prevailing response from reporters in the country was, “Who is this guy? And why is he here?” 

If the governor and I went back today? He’d be a lot better known, bet on that. 

DeSantis is now a global figure, tested in national opinion polls and with a message that is resonating with a big chunk of the Republican base, and with independent voters. I don’t know what the Democrats have to match up against that, and unless they can find a way to match DeSantis’ energy and presence, November is going to be ugly, not just in the governor’s race but up and down the ballot. 

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor email A.G. Gancarski has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes for the New York Post and National Review also, with previous work in the American Conservative and Washington Times and a 15+ year run as a columnist in Folio Weekly.

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