Once the Nation’s Swingingest Swing State, Florida’s Primary a Test on How to Challenge the Right

August 20, 2022 by Dan McCue
Once the Nation’s Swingingest Swing State, Florida’s Primary a Test on How to Challenge the Right
Charlie Crist

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It once was the state people wrung their hands over.

A generation ago, political conversations around the dinner table come the final weeks before an election usually landed somewhere around here: 

“Your candidate might have all this sewn up, but how’s the vote in Florida going to shake out?”

These days, a generation removed from Bush v. Gore and hanging chads and targeted recounts, the Sunshine State has evolved to become at least “leaning Republican” and increasingly conservative.


So it’s not so much of a surprise that the primaries taking place on Aug. 23, particularly those for governor and U.S. Senate, are seen in many quarters as a litmus test for how the Democrats will take on Republicans in November.

The most tantalizing race, at least in terms of the polls, is the Democratic primary for governor.


Released on Tuesday, the latest poll from Public Option Research Lab at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville has the state’s Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried pulling ahead of former Governor and current Rep. Charlie Crist, garnering 47% of the support from respondents, compared with 43% for him.

If true, that would mean Fried, who has been trailing by as much as 8 percentage points through much of the campaign, is either peaking at the right time or got something of a tailwind from outside factors, like the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe. v Wade, suggested Dr. Michael Binder, the faculty director of the research lab and a UNF professor of political science.

“It’s possible that the overturning of Roe v. Wade changed the makeup of this race, and has particularly energized women that are almost 20 points more likely to vote for her,” he said in a written statement.

The other candidates in the race, Cadance Daniel and Robert Willis, had 4% and 1%, respectively; 6% didn’t know or refused to answer.

On the other hand, an internal poll conducted by Change Research has Crist ahead of Fried, 47% to 37%.

Both polls have a margin of error of between 4.2% and 4.3%. Whichever proves right, both polls suggest the prevailing Democrat will sit down to breakfast Wednesday morning trailing Republican incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

Nikki Fried

According to the University of North Florida poll, 50% of respondents said they would vote for DeSantis, while 43% said they would prefer Fried, and 5% said they would vote for someone else. 

DeSantis also came out on top with 50% when asked the same question if the Democratic candidate was Crist, who had 42%, and 6% saying they would vote for someone else.

“Fried and Crist are trailing behind DeSantis in head-to-heads,” Binder said in the UNF press release. “But both potential matchups are much closer than they were when we polled registered voters in February, when DeSantis was up by over 20 percentage points. 

“It is important to keep in mind that these are registered voters, and Republicans are generally more likely to turn out in November,” he said.

That said, DeSantis does seem to have experienced some slippage in the polls, his approval rating dropping down to 50% compared with 58% in February.

On the other hand, 45% said they approve strongly of the job DeSantis is doing, while only 5% said they approve somewhat. Conversely, 41% said they strongly disapprove, with only 7% disapproving somewhat.

As for Fried, she had an approval rating of 40%, with 27% disapproving and 31% who don’t know.

“The polarization of DeSantis support is striking, if not altogether surprising with political agenda and media presence this past year,” Binder said. “More people seem to have an opinion about Fried since she started campaigning for governor — her ‘don’t know’ percentage has decreased dramatically from 49% in February.” 

Looking to November and Beyond

Perhaps the biggest news to emerge from the University of North Florida poll is that it has Democratic Rep. Val Demings besting incumbent Republican senator and one-time presidential candidate Marco Rubio, 48% to 44%, with 7% saying they would prefer to vote for somebody else.

Worse for Rubio is his current approval rating, which respondents placed at 37%, a percentage point behind where they placed President Joe Biden in terms of support for the job he’s doing.

Registered Republicans participating in the poll were also asked who they’d vote for in a hypothetical presidential primary in 2024 between DeSantis and former President Donald Trump. 

Of that group, 47% said they would vote for DeSantis and 45% for Trump; 7% said they would vote for someone else.


So Many Candidates

There is almost no way to unravel the craziness that redistricting wrought upon congressional primaries in Florida this year. In short, there are so many candidates for a relative paucity of seats.

According to Ballotpedia, a total of 152 hopeful Floridians filed to run in one of Florida’s 28 U.S. House district races — 58 Democrats and 94 Republicans.

And according to Ballotpedia’s Juan Garcia de Paredes, who did the math, that breaks down to an average 5.43 candidates per district, more than the 4.22 candidates per district in 2020 and the 3.86 in 2018.

But there are some outliers. Remember the aforementioned Val Demings? She currently represents Florida’s 10th Congressional District.

Val Demings

However, her decision to take on Rubio created an open seat for which 10 Democrats and six Republicans are vying — the most candidates running for a House seat in Florida this year.

In addition to Demings, three other incumbents are not running for reelection this year. The first, of course, is Charlie Crist, who currently represents Florida’s 13th Congressional District but is now running for governor.

Also sitting out this year’s elections are Democratic Reps. Stephanie Murphy, who currently represents Florida’s 7th Congressional District, and Ted Deutch, who represents the state’s 22nd Congressional District.

Murphy’s seat is widely expected to flip due to redistricting and, like Demings’ district, features a primary battle between eight candidates. 

In addition to the vacancies caused by their departures, there are also three other open seats — the 4th, 15th and 23rd Congressional Districts.

Another anomaly: in the wake of this year’s redistricting, eight congressional incumbents are running in districts other than the ones they currently represent.

For instance, Republican Rep. John Rutherford, who represents the 4th Congressional District, is now running in the 5th District.

Rutherford’s fellow Republican, Rep. Scott Franklin, who currently represents the 15th Congressional District, is now running in the 18th District. 

And on the Democratic side, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who represents the 23rd Congressional District, is running in the 25th.

If all that movement isn’t head-spinning enough, two current incumbents are running against each other in the newly reconstituted 2nd Congressional District in Florida.

These are the incumbent, Republican Rep. Neal Dunn, and Democratic Rep. Al Lawson, who currently represents the 5th Congressional District.

In all, Ballotpedia reports, there are 38 contested congressional primaries this year, a decade-high.

A redistricting plan all but drawn by DeSantis himself appears to guarantee that the state will send at least six new members to Congress this year, including four running in either solid or Republican-leaning districts.

Issues

When it came to the issues driving voters’ behavior this year, the University of North Florida poll found that 51% of respondents said the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling made them more likely to vote in this year’s midterm election, while 46% said it would not affect their decision to vote, and 3% said it would make them less likely to vote.

In a related question, respondents were asked if they would support a law making abortion illegal in all cases in the State of Florida, to which the majority (59%) said they would be strongly opposed, and 12% somewhat opposed. Twenty-seven percent said they would support such a law: 13% strongly and 14% somewhat.

“Without the protections of Roe, the likelihood of a strict or outright ban on abortion being introduced in Florida increases dramatically, and this looks to be mobilizing Democrats to the polls — 78% said the decision made them more likely to vote in November,” Binder said. “But among Republicans, most (54%) said they are at least somewhat supportive of an outright ban.”

When asked what they think is the most important problem facing Florida today, 43% of respondents said cost of living was the most pressing issue. 

Tied in a distant second place are education and abortion/reproductive rights, each with 8%. 


Cost of living is a new category added since the last time this question was asked in February of this year, when the top choice was economy, jobs, and unemployment with 22%, now down to 7%. 

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @DanMcCue

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