Fried challenges Crist's abortion rights stance, but he maintains lead in Democratic primary
TALLAHASSEE – Charlie Crist’s campaign touted a new poll Wednesday showing him with a commanding lead over rival Nikki Fried in the August Democratic primary for governor, even as she has stepped-up her questioning of his support for abortion rights — an issue now front and center in the race.
Since last Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling which overturned the constitutional right to abortion, Fried has tried to cast herself as the most reliable Democrat to fight the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature over any effort to further restrict abortion.
Fried has begun running a social media ad featuring Crist, mostly in his days as a Republican governor and candidate, describing himself repeatedly as “pro-life.”
But Crist, now a Democratic congressman from St. Petersburg, has won 100% ratings from the National Abortion Rights Action League during his three terms in Washington and this week pledged to “do everything in my power to defend women, their right to choose and the freedom of Floridians across the state.”
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As Republican governor, Crist in 2010 vetoed legislation requiring that ultrasounds be performed before abortions. A year later, his successor, then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, signed the measure into law.
“He stands solidly behind his record,” Austin Durrer, Crist’s campaign manager, said Wednesday.
He added, “We think people are smart enough to look beyond these political gimmicks that people toss out there on the attack. They know Charlie and they know his record and they believe what he says.”
Fried, the state's Agriculture Commissioner, has sharpened her attack on Crist, with her campaign calling her the “ONLY always pro-choice candidate in the race.”
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In the wake of Friday’s ruling, she attended several abortion rights rallies, where she vowed to veto any restrictive legislation advanced by the Republican Legislature.
Crist maintains double-digit edge
The new survey of 600 likely Democratic voters conducted by the Crist campaign shows him leading with 55% support, compared to 34% for Fried and 11% undecided. The poll has a 4% margin-of-error, and the results are virtually unchanged since the Crist campaign’s last survey in January.
The survey was conducted mostly over last weekend, capturing many respondents after the high court ruling on abortion.
Fried two weeks ago released her own campaign’s survey that showed the race roughly a toss-up. Fried advisor Kevin Cate disputed the accuracy of the rival camp’s new poll, saying his side is confident heading toward the Aug. 23 primary.
The abortion ruling, however, has added a new wild card to many races around the country, including Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bid for re-election in November.
DeSantis signed into law in April a measure banning most abortions in Florida after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The measure is set to take effect July 1, but Planned Parenthood affiliates are asking a judge this week to block the new restriction, saying it violates the state’s constitutional right to privacy.
DeSantis has said he is focused on defending the new law. But he also said following the Supreme Court ruling that he will “work to expand pro-life protections,” in Florida.
Abortion opponents in Florida say they expect DeSantis to propose tighter restrictions on the procedure after the November elections.
"Fetal heartbeat" bill could come soon
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, said he sees as a possibility the governor proposing a six-week ban on abortions, similar to the so-called fetal heartbeat law which Georgia is now trying to put in place.
While the ruling appears to have accelerated the push by many Democrats to unseat DeSantis in November, it may not be steering them toward Fried as the party standard bearer.
Two prominent organizations, the Florida Planned Parenthood PAC and Ruth’s List Florida, haven’t endorsed in the Democratic primary for governor. Leaders say defeating DeSantis is the priority and having the strongest Democratic challenger also is a must.
“The only way to assure that abortion care is available and affordable for all is to elect Democratic, pro-choice candidates at all levels of government, who will actually fight, now that abortion law has been turned back to the states to decide,” said Lucy Sedgwick, president and CEO of Ruth’s List, who added that her organization is “still monitoring” the Democratic primary for governor.
Laura Goodhue, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, said her organization doesn’t plan to endorse in the Crist-Fried contest. She said both candidates are “pro-reproductive health care.”
Activists are working voters
But Goodhue said that activists are working to inform voters about the changing abortion climate, spending last weekend knocking on almost 7,700 doors in Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa, where five Florida Senate races will be decided.
“We’re reaching out to voters who are moved by reproductive health care, that may be sitting on the fence or not getting out to vote,” Goodhue said. “We’re letting them know who the candidates are down-ballot. They may not know the candidates records, that’s why we’re getting the word out.”
Goodhue said that about one-fifth of Planned Parenthood members in Florida are registered Republicans.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, and a Crist supporter, said her People Power for Florida voter registration committee has been working abortion rights rallies in Central Florida, and said the issue has emerged as a motivating force.
“We are seeing a lot of folks develop a position on abortion, where they really didn’t have one before,” Eskamani said. “Now they see that the courts have gone too far.
“People are awake and aware and they want to know how legislators voted on abortion. It will hold people accountable,” she added.
The issue’s effect on the outcome of the August Democratic primary for governor, though, may be more difficult to pin down.
“I think Charlie and Nikki are going to be supportive of abortion rights if either was governor,” Eskamani said. “There really shouldn’t be any back-and-forth on that beyond her trying to make herself look like the better option in that regard. Even as a Republican, Charlie Crist vetoed an abortion bill.”
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport