Crist Will Face DeSantis in Florida, With More Democrats Likely to Follow

MIAMI — Representative Charlie Crist, Democrat of Florida, entered the race for governor on Tuesday, becoming the first challenger to Ron DeSantis, a Republican who raised his profile by shunning lockdowns during the pandemic and is now a leading contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024.

“Every step of the way, this governor has been more focused on his personal political fortune than the struggle of everyday Floridians,” Mr. Crist said under the blazing sun in St. Petersburg as he made his announcement. “That’s just not right. Just like our former president, he always takes credit but never takes responsibility.”

His candidacy signaled the start of a long, expensive and most likely bruising campaign in a battleground state that has been swinging away from Democrats since 2016. Florida’s exceptionally tight governor’s races have been decided by around one percentage point since 2010, always in Republicans’ favor. The last Democrat to win election to the governor’s mansion was Lawton Chiles, who won a second term in 1994.

Mr. Crist’s advisers see him as the Democrat with the most experience running statewide and appealing to a coalition of liberal and moderate voters in the way that President Biden did nationally — though not in Florida, which former President Donald J. Trump won by three percentage points.

Mr. Crist has an extensive political history in Florida and is widely known throughout the state. He served as governor as a Republican from 2007 to 2011 before running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate as an independent, losing to Marco Rubio. After switching parties, he later lost a Democratic bid for governor in 2014 against the Republican incumbent, Rick Scott.

The arc of his political evolution was evident in the video he used on Tuesday to announce his candidacy. It featured footage of the hug with former President Barack Obama that led to Mr. Crist’s departure from the Republican Party 11 years ago.

But Mr. Crist’s experience is unlikely to deter other Democratic candidates from joining the race. His clout has been diminished by years of electoral failures and by a party that is increasingly open to a wider range of more diverse public figures to be its standard bearers. Two women, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Representative Val Demings of Orlando, are considering their own runs for the governor’s mansion as Democrats.

Ms. Fried scheduled a news conference in the State Capitol for the same time as Mr. Crist’s announcement. “As the only statewide elected Democrat, it makes absolute sense for me to be running for governor,” she said, but she added that she was not making an announcement at that time.

Ms. Demings released a video on Tuesday that, while not declaring a candidacy, highlighted her career as Orlando police chief, impeachment manager in Congress and a shortlisted vice-presidential pick for Mr. Biden.

Similar jockeying — though not quite as intense — is underway among Democrats looking to go up against Mr. Rubio, who also faces re-election next year.

Asked about Mr. Crist’s announcement on Tuesday, Mr. DeSantis mocked Mr. Crist’s party-switching. “Which party is he going to run under, do we know for sure?” he said.

Referring to Democrats in general, he said: “I implore them, from my political interest: Run on closing schools. Run on locking people down. Run on closing businesses.” He added, “I would love to have that debate.”

In advance of Mr. Crist’s announcement, Mr. DeSantis held an official event on Monday at Mr. Crist’s favorite seafood restaurant in St. Petersburg, touting the wins he had racked up during the session the Republican-controlled Legislature concluded last week — which he and Republican lawmakers used to champion policies that will appeal to Florida’s increasingly conservative electorate.

And on Monday, Mr. DeSantis signed a bill and an executive order doing away with most of Florida’s remaining pandemic restrictions, contrasting his administration’s aversion for mandates to the restrictions in states led by Democrats.

Still, Mr. Crist was withering in his criticism of the governor on Tuesday.

“Gov. DeSantis’s vision of Florida is clear: If you want to vote, he won’t help you,” Mr. Crist said. “If you’re working, he won’t support you. If you’re a woman, he will not empower you. If you’re an immigrant, he won’t accept you. If you’re facing discrimination, he won’t respect you. If you’re sick, he won’t care for you.”

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