Charlie Crist won Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday, setting up a highly anticipated November contest with incumbent GOP Gov. Rick Scott.
Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida, entered the race as the heavy favorite against challenger Nan Rich. Crist defeated the former state Senate Democratic leader with 74 percent of the vote with 97 percent of precincts reporting. The Associated Press called the race for Crist.
Crist told a cheering crowd of supporters Tuesday night that it was a night to celebrate, but "we need to get to work really fast" to take on Scott.
"This race is about a lot of things my friends," he said. "Most importantly it is about making sure Floridians get their Florida back."
With superior name recognition and a multi-million-dollar war chest, Crist barely acknowledged the 72-year-old Rich, declining to debate her and instead focusing on his expected match with Scott.
Scott easily defeated primary challengers Yinka Abosede Adeshina and Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder with more than 80 percent of the vote with 97 percent of precincts reporting.
Scott said in a statement Tuesday that the campaign going forward is "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," he said. "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."
Scott and Crist are separated by one percentage point in a match-up, according to the most recent averaging of polls by RealClearPolitics.com. The non-partisan website had Crist leading by as much as 4.6 percentage points in February with Scott steadily narrowing the gap as November approaches.
Florida has not elected a Democratic governor since 1994.
Crist and Scott each have their share of challenges.
Scott, a wealthy health-care executive who had never held public office before, won the job with less than a majority in 2010, and his first term has been marked by low approval ratings and struggles against the GOP-led legislature.
Such factors have Democrats excited about an opportunity to pick up a governor's seat in a state President Obama won twice.
However, Crist is a Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat, which makes some party faithful wary.
His final margin of victory Tuesday should be a good indication of whether he can connect with core Democrats and stage a political comeback.
Crist's last foray into statewide politics ended in embarrassment for him and for Democrats.
In 2010, three years into his term as governor, Crist decided not to run for re-election, instead trying for the Senate.
Already unpopular among conservatives in part for backing Obama's economic stimulus law, he ran as an Independent rather than face GOP primary voters. Crist finished well behind the eventual winner, Republican Marco Rubio, but still relegated the Democratic nominee to an even more distant third.
Since then, Crist declared he was a Democrat, complete with a full embrace of the Obama administration. He endorsed the president for a second term in 2012 and campaigned as an unapologetic defender of Obama's health care law.
That sets up the potential fault lines in a race against Scott, who initially called for expanding Medicaid insurance rolls under the new law but backed off when GOP lawmakers balked.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.