Matt Gaetz and the R word: Florida's Democratic primary takes bitter detour

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) is taking a pause from his usual campaign stance as a “happy warrior.”

In a sign that the Democratic primary for governor has entered a bitter new phase, the Florida congressman has hit rival Nikki Fried with a blistering new mailer that calls her a “Republican lobbyist for big tobacco and insurance companies” and notes her previous friendship with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.).

The mailer is hitting the mailboxes of Democratic voters this week — about three weeks before the Aug. 23 primary to decide who will take on Gov. Ron DeSantis in an election where the incumbent is a heavy favorite to win. The decision to highlight Fried’s connection to Gaetz comes as the Panhandle Republican and staunch defender of former President Donald Trump caused a national firestorm after saying at a conservative conference that no one wants to “impregnate” abortion rights protesters because they are unattractive.

Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, has been hitting Crist for months now as he has outflanked her in fundraising and endorsements. She’s targeted his past record when he was a Republican, contending that his current?support for abortion rights could dissipate if he were to win election. She has spent nearly $900,000 on several mailers that point out Crist has called himself “pro-life” in the past as well as emphasizing his past opposition to same-sex marriage and his support back in the ‘90s to bring back chain-gangs for prison inmates.

Fried’s campaign saw the negative mail piece as a confirmation that their strategy to peel Crist away from reliable Democratic voters by emphasizing his past record is having an impact even though most recent polls have had Crist ahead.

“Charlie Crist, a self-described ‘pro-life’ man, is photoshopping fake ‘GOP’ signs on the only statewide elected Democrat and calling her a ‘Republican lobbyist in mail,” said Caroline Korba, a spokesperson for the Fried campaign, in a statement. “It's time for any woman who endorsed Charlie Crist's campaign to speak up, disown him, and reject his lies about supporting women and women's health. He is a fraud, a coward, and a three-time (about to be four-time) loser.”

Before Fried was elected as agriculture commissioner in 2018, she was a lobbyist and primarily represented companies involved in the state’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry. But she also represented other companies at one point, including a Florida tobacco company and insurance trade groups.

She has never been a registered Republican, but she donated money to Republicans such as state Attorney General Ashley Moody and helped campaign for GOP legislators such as Manny Diaz, Jr. who is now the state’s education commissioner.

Fried became friends with Gaetz at a time when he was a state legislator who was deeply involved in legislative efforts surrounding medical marijuana. Gaetz has noted on Twitter that Fried was the first person to ask about his well-being following the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol. Fried has said repeatedly that she is no longer friends or in contact with Gaetz, who has been under federal investigation since November 2020 over whether he had sex with a 17-year-old girl and paid her for it. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing and has not faced any charges associated with the probe.

The Crist campaign defended its decision to send out the hard-hitting mailer — which also says Crist is “100% pro-choice” by saying they were responding to a barrage of attacks coming from Fried.

“Nikki Fried has spent most of this campaign negatively and falsely attacking Charlie’s record,” said Sam Ramirez, a Crist spokesperson, in an email. “She’s put a million dollars into misleading attack ads. We’re responding in kind to make sure voters know Charlie is 100 percent pro-choice, and that Fried has a very troubling record of supporting Republicans for higher office, along with a personal relationship with Matt Gaetz that should give everyone pause.”

Crist has had a lengthy political career, and during several races, he has gone negative — including one memorable ad in his GOP run for governor in 2006 that slammed his opponent for missing votes in Congress.

But part of Crist’s appeal has been his aw-shucks demeanor and his ongoing attempt to brand himself as more civil, old-school type of candidate capable of winning over each voter with a smile. At one point in his current campaign for governor, he compared himself to President Joe Biden and said he was running a campaign based on “decency and mutual respect.”

Democratic elected officials who have backed Crist in the primary have cited this — and Crist’s decision to focus most of his attention on DeSantis — as reasons why they supported him instead of Fried.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, a progressive Democrat from Orlando who has sparred with Fried campaign staffers online after she endorsed Crist for governor, said that as long as Fried is “lying” about Crist’s record, she should expect a response.

“According to Commissioner Fried and her team I am an off-brand AOC,” said Eskamani, referring to the well-known New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “If she’s going to keep lying about Charlie’s record and people like me then be ready for some fact checking.”

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