FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist continued his political comeback Tuesday as Democratic voters selected him as their nominee to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott in Florida, one of four states where voters were choosing candidates for statewide office.
Crist easily defeated former state Sen. Nan Rich, while Scott coasted in his own primary toward a general election matching the state’s last two Republican governors. Both have struggled with sagging approval ratings and run-ins with conservatives.
Unofficial returns, with nearly two-thirds of precincts reporting, showed Crist with a 3-to-1 lead over Rich, who had been campaigning for governor longer than Crist has been a Democrat. Crist was heavily favored, but it was important for him to post a wide margin to demonstrate that his new party has embraced him four years after he lost a Senate race to Republican Marco Rubio. Crist was an independent then.
“It’s a wonderful night,” Crist declared after accepting a concession call from Rich.
Crist said the strong showing is a sign that Democrats believe in him. “Frankly, I think I was on their side when I was in the other party,” he said as he prepared a 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.”
His partisan whipsawing in the past, Crist was immediately praised Tuesday night by the leader of his new party. In a statement, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida congresswoman, called Crist “the next governor of Florida.”
Democrats view the seat as a key pickup opportunity in a state President Barack Obama won twice.
Crist, 58, previously won three statewide races as a GOP candidate, 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 and had the backing of GOP leaders in a 2010 bid for Senate — until Rubio used an image of Crist hugging Obama to chase Crist from the primary. Crist then ran as an independent, but he ended up a distant second. In 2012, he endorsed Obama for a second term.
Scott, 61, who had minor primary opposition, has already spent millions of dollars on ads criticizing Crist and pointing out how he has changed from opposing to supporting same-sex marriage, gun control and Obama’s health care plan.
A Crist vs. Scott general election matchup would be sure to feature a high-profile debate over Obama’s health care overhaul. Pressured by Republican legislators, Scott abandoned an initial call to expand Medicaid under the Democratic law. Crist has blasted the decision and, unlike many Democrats on the ballot this year, is an unapologetic cheerleader for the Affordable Care Act.
In Arizona, meanwhile, several Republicans were running to succeed GOP Gov. Jan Brewer. Polls were scheduled to close at 7 p.m. local time.
Vermont Republicans nominated businessman Scott Milne over three other candidates to face Democratic incumbent Peter Shumlin, who also leads the Democratic Governors Association. Other statewide offices, including an at-large House seat, also are on the ballot.
Oklahoma Democrats chose state Sen. Connie Johnson as their Senate nominee over perennial candidate Jim Rogers. Johnson will be a general election underdog against Rep. James Lankford for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Tom Coburn.
In Florida, the Democratic primary was an important hurdle for Crist, as he looks to prove his connections within the party. His challenge was evident at the polls Tuesday.
David Bradley, a lawyer from West Palm Beach, said he voted for Rich. Asked why he didn’t support Crist, Bradley said: “He’s a Republican!”
Even some of Crist’s supporters indicated their vote was more about Scott than Crist.
“I like Nan Rich, but I didn’t want to waste my vote,” 65-year-old Lavon Wright said outside a Gainesville precinct. “I think Crist can beat the current governor.”
In Oklahoma, some Democratic voters said their Senate runoff was likely a futile exercise.
Phil Defree, 64, a retired civil servant in central Oklahoma, voted for Johnson but said he had no expectations that Democrats can defeat Lankford in a state where Obama failed to win a single county in either of his national victories.
“Oh, no! Not in Oklahoma. I’m a realist,” Defree said.
The crowded Arizona governors’ primary was a test of Brewer’s strength. She endorsed former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith. Democrat Fred DuVal was unopposed in his primary and will face the GOP winner in November.
BRENDAN FARRINGTON AND BILL BARROW, Associated Press
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach, Florida; Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Florida; Kristi Eaton in Guthrie, Oklahoma; and Bob Christie in Phoenix, Arizona, contributed to this report.