FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist won the Democratic primary to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday, marking another step in an unlikely political comeback four years after leaving the GOP.
Crist defeated Nan Rich, a former Senate Democratic leader who has been campaigning for governor longer than Crist has been a Democrat. He is the first person in Florida to win the nomination for governor as a Republican and a Democrat. With 99 percent of the precincts counted, Crist had 74 percent to 26 percent for Rich.
He now faces Scott and Libertarian Adrian Wyllie in a race that’s already been highly negative. Scott anticipated a Crist victory and has already spent millions of dollars in ads attacking him for political flip-flops, supporting President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and his decision to run for Senate instead of a second term as governor as the state’s economy tanked.
“Congratulations! It’s a wonderful night!” Crist said as he hugged his running mate, Annette Taddeo, after Rich called Crist to concede the race minutes after the polls closed.
Crist said the strong showing is a sign that Democrats believe in him despite the fact that he’s new to the party.
“Frankly, I think I was on their side when I was in the other party,” Crist said as he prepared for his victory speech. He said a friend once told him, “‘Charlie, you’ve been a Democrat your whole life, you just didn’t know it.’ Well now I know it.”
In his victory speech, Crist pointed out that even as a Republican he vetoed bills that would have required ultrasounds before abortions and established a merit pay system for teachers. He also extended early voting hours in 2008 even though it helped Obama.
“When it comes to taking even a single step to make it a little easier for families to pay the bills, raise their kids, save for retirement, Rick Scott hasn’t been on our side,” Crist said. As the crowd booed at the mention of Scott, Crist said, “Don’t boo, vote.”
Crist was also focused on Scott leading up to the primary, refusing to debate Rich while reminding voters that Scott is a former hospital chain CEO who ran a company that paid a $1.7 billion settlement for Medicaid fraud.
Crist, 58, has won three statewide races as a Republican, and it wasn’t that long ago that he called himself a Ronald Reagan/Jeb Bush Republican. He was once considered a potential running mate for 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain. He also had the backing of GOP leaders in a 2010 bid for the U.S. Senate — until Marco Rubio used an image of Crist hugging Obama to chase Crist from the primary. Crist lost an independent bid for the seat Rubio now holds.
After campaigning for Obama in 2012, Crist completed his political transition later that year by posting a photo of his voter registration card on Twitter during an event at the White House.
He now hopes he can inspire Democratic voters who have opposed him in five statewide races. As a Republican, Crist was elected education commissioner in 2000, attorney general in 2002 and governor in 2006. He lost a U.S. Senate race as a Republican in 1998 and as an independent in 2010.
In her concession speech, Rich said she told Crist that she wants to make sure her progressive values will have a place in his campaign and said she’ll work to help elect him.
“I entered this race to defeat Rick Scott and to get Florida back on the right track, and that is the goal that I remain committed to,” she said.
Crist said he welcomes her help.
“The issues she’s passionate about, I’m passionate about, too. Obviously that includes women and children and education,” Crist said after the phone call.
Despite initially campaigning as a strong conservative in the 2010 Senate race, Crist was widely considered a moderate Republican governor supported by some Democrats.
Retired teacher Ann Long, 75 and a longtime Democrat from Miami, said she voted for Crist.
“I liked him when he was a Republican governor, and I thought he had the best chance of winning. He seemed to run the state well,” Long said.
Scott easily defeated his primary opposition. He is seeking his second term after spending $73 million of his and his wife’s money to win the governor’s office four years ago.
Scott was elected without a majority of the vote in a close race with former Florida CFO Alex Sink. He campaigned as a tea party conservative advocating for less government spending and making the state more business friendly.
But Scott has transitioned from a political outsider seeking to shake up government to a candidate who is advocating for more spending on education, the environment and other programs.
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