People in Florida politics tend to call Charlie Crist the mayor of Pinellas County.
That’s a joke because he’s a congressman, but it is meant to capture Crist’s skill at old-fashioned retail politics, the glad-handing and seeming ability to be everywhere and known to everyone. As congressional politics become increasingly driven by national topics discussed on the opposing camps’ cable and social media networks, that kind of talent still has currency along the Gulf Coast, where the retirees who make up a good proportion of the voters may value personal connection over party affiliation.
And it’s made Crist, a Democrat who has also been elected as a Republican, difficult to beat in the 13th District, a competitive part of a perennial swing state whose core county has voted for Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden in the past three presidential elections.
So Republicans were excited this month when Crist, a former governor who has often flirted with another statewide run, announced that he would challenge Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis next year rather than seek a fourth House term.
Crist’s departure puts his district, which encompasses liberal St. Petersburg and the more conservative Clearwater, within reach for the GOP in the midterms, when Democrats, as the party in control of the White House, will already be at a historical disadvantage.
The new open-seat race is among numerous reasons the Sunshine State, so frequently at the center of the country’s electoral dramas, is poised to play a pivotal role in the country’s direction again, in 2022.
2 seats flipped in 2020
Flipping two Miami-area districts helped Republicans chip away at Democrats’ House majority in 2020, an election that saw a decisive victory in the state for former President Donald Trump and surprise defeats for numerous down-ballot Democrats. Now the GOP sees an opportunity to flip a third congressional district that some consider easier turf.
Yet another competitive district, the Orlando-area 7th, could open up if Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy makes a long-anticipated announcement that she will challenge Marco Rubio for his Senate seat.
Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature also will be carving out the new congressional district that the state was awarded this spring after the House was reapportioned to reflect results of the 2020 census.
The new district is largely expected to draw in Republican-leaning communities in the central part of the state, making it safe for the GOP. But that might force Republicans in the Legislature to add more Democratic voters to other districts, including Crist’s 13th or one of the two South Miami seats won in November by Reps. Carlos Gimenez and María Elvira Salazar.
The next election could also be the first using recently enacted controls on absentee ballots and drop boxes, depending on how legal challenges go. The races come as the state Democratic Party is broke, and Republicans have been steadily catching up to Democrats in voter registrations, thanks in part to an aggressive ground operation. Races for governor and senator will also likely be generating excitement from both sides of the aisle. Republicans won the last gubernatorial and Senate elections in the state by less than 1 percentage point.
Republicans and Democrats draw opposite conclusions from these trends.
“The sense here is that we are more of a Republican state than we have ever been,” Tampa-based GOP strategist Anthony Pedicini said.
“The Democrats are within striking distance,” said Alan Grayson, a former Democratic House member who is contemplating a Senate bid.
Field taking shape
The race to replace Crist is still developing, but two high-profile Democrats, state Rep. Ben Diamond and Obama-era national security adviser Eric Lynn, have already announced bids. They joined 2020 GOP nominee Anna Paulina Luna, who raised $3 million, was endorsed by Trump and came within 6 points of Crist last cycle.
Diamond, a lawyer, was set to become the next Democratic leader in the state House when Crist called him to gauge his support for Crist’s gubernatorial bid, he said. He knew right away that he wanted to run to succeed him, even though it was far from a sure bet.
Diamond said he had long contemplated following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Dante Fascell, who served four decades in Congress representing a district near Miami.
“I know that the district may change as a result of the reapportionment process, but something just feels right about this decision,” Diamond said. He grew up in Pinellas County. It’s where he launched his first campaign — for third grade president — and where his 8-year-old played in the Little League playoffs last week. “This is my home,” he said.
Diamond said a number of people have pulled him aside to express their support since he announced his campaign on May 10 — a measure, he said, of enthusiasm for the issues he has championed in the statehouse, including a criminal justice overhaul and protecting the coastal region’s water and beaches from the forces of climate change.
“In Pinellas County, we are a swing county and have been for a while,” he said. “We have a lot of independent-minded voters who, I think, are fed up with partisan politics.”
He will almost certainly face a bruising primary. Lynn, the first Democrat to jump in, announced last week that his campaign had raised $100,000 in the first five days. Lynn’s campaign did not respond to a request to comment for this report. The two ran against each other for the state House in 2016, when Diamond won his current seat. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is facing a term limit in his current post, is also reportedly considering a bid.
2020 GOP nominee running again
On the Republican side, Luna, an Air Force veteran turned right-wing media personality, is so far the only candidate to officially announce a bid. She is already working to court the pro-Trump vote. She tweeted last week, for example, that the Republican vote to remove Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from leadership for her refusal to accept Trump’s lies about the 2020 election results was a “SMALL glimpse into 2022.”
“The GOP has 0 room for weak representatives that will not fight for America First values, the constitution, & their constituents,” she wrote.
Trump lost the 13th District, under its present lines, by 4 points last fall, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.
In her last campaign, Luna attracted attention for her mockery of “elite” liberals and flashy campaign ads that featured Luna, a former swimsuit model, wielding a flamethrower or zipping off an airplane runway in a red sports car.
Strategists on both sides of the aisle said that Luna, though likely to do well in a primary, could have trouble convincing general election voters that she is sincere. She moved to the region and changed her last name from Mayerhofer shortly before launching her first congressional bid in 2019 and was once a self-described avid Obama supporter.
Amanda Makki, a former Hill staffer, lawyer and health care lobbyist who had national Republicans’ support in 2020 but lost to Luna in the primary, said she is also considering running again.
“This race is about a check on one-party control of our government,” she said. “It is critical that we nominate a candidate who embraces the Make America First agenda and can win in the general.”
But the 13th District race will largely be shaped by the way the new district lines are drawn in the fall, and that is hard to predict.
The District used to be more friendly to Republicans, but it took in more Democratic voters after a court-ordered redistricting in 2015. Recently, Republicans’ voter registration efforts have reduced Democrats’ advantage to less than 1 percent in 2020.
But it would be unlikely for the state GOP lawmakers to draw new lines that will make the district lean much more to the right, strategists said. Indeed, they could sacrifice the GOP’s chances by adding Democratic voters to keep those voters from making other districts more competitive.
“Florida Republicans have a decision to make,” said David Jolly, who represented the district as a Republican until he lost to Crist in 2016. “Do you redraw the 13th to close the gap and make it competitive, or do you give it away and shore up a new Republican seat in central Florida?”
This report was updated to include a comment from Amanda Makki.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.