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 39 percent of the precincts counted, Crist had 75 percent to 25 percent for Rich.
"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."
Crist, 58, 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 President Barack 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.
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.
Scott had anticipated that Crist will be his opponent. The state Republican Party began attacking Crist months before he officially became a Democrat. Scott has spent millions of dollars on ads criticizing Crist, pointing out how he has changed from opposing to supporting such issues as same-sex marriage, gun control and Obama's health care plan.
Scott issued a statement shortly after Crist was declared victorious that said: “The next few months are about talk versus action. That means Florida will have a choice between a governor who sent our state into a tailspin and a governor who gets results. Charlie Crist failed as governor, lost 830,000 jobs, and tried to run off to Washington – and now he wants his job back. We’ve come a long way in the last few years, but there’s plenty of work left to do. Let’s keep working."
The primary was a test to see whether Democrats accept Crist's political conversion. Democrats 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.
Despite initially campaigning as a strong conservative in the 2010 Senate race, Crist was widely considered a moderate Republican governor supported by some Democrats.
He vetoed an abortion bill and a teacher merit pay bill that were priorities for Republicans in 2010 and was a leader on climate change issues as governor.
At most polling places visited by Associated Press reporters early Tuesday, there were few voters.
At Miami's Legion Park, only about a dozen voters had trickled in by 9 am. Retired teacher Ann Long, 75 and a longtime Democrat, 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.
It was a busy morning at a polling place in Gainesville's Duckpond neighborhood, a Democratic bastion — but that was mostly driven by local races such as school board and judgeships.
Lavon Wright, 65, who was out campaigning for her brother for school board, said she voted for Crist — like most there.
"I like Nan Rich, but I didn't want to waste my vote. I think Crist can beat the current governor. Our current governor is the worst Florida has ever seen," she said.
At the Dreyfoos School of the Arts near downtown West Palm Beach, only a handful of voters turned out in the first two hours of balloting.
David Bradley, a lawyer from West Palm Beach, voted for Rich and said he was swayed by Scott's attacks on Crist.
"Nan Rich may be the only candidate that has the best interest of Florida at her heart," he said.
Asked why he didn't support Crist, he said: "He's a Republican!"
At a Pensacola Beach polling station in the heavily Republican Panhandle, Vietnam era Army veteran Vic Bindi, 76, shook his head in dismay at the low turnout. He said he always votes to honor the memory of thousands of soldiers who died fighting for the country.
He said he voted for Scott over his two unknown opponents because he believes the governor has done a good job getting the state's debt under control and boosting education.
He had one word for Crist: "Turncoat."
Associated Press writers Matt Sedensky in West Palm Beach, Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Melissa Nelson-Gabriel in Pensacola, Kelli Kennedy in Weston and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.