FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida Democrats chose Representative Charlie Crist as their nominee for governor on Tuesday, betting that the former Republican governor who campaigned on a return to political decency was their best bet to try to defeat Gov. Ron DeSantis, the polarizing Republican incumbent.
Mr. Crist’s blowout victory sets up the general election against Mr. DeSantis as a contest between a centrist and a hard-right conservative, with Democrats believing that the well-known and peaceable Mr. Crist can attract independent voters and Republicans who are fed up with Mr. DeSantis’s aggressive right-wing policies.
“They want a governor who cares about them, who solves real problems, who preserves our freedom,” Mr. Crist told supporters gathered in his hometown, St. Petersburg, as he pivoted quickly to attacking Mr. DeSantis. “Not a bully who divides us and takes our freedom away.”
But Mr. DeSantis is a formidable foe, having built his national profile during the coronavirus pandemic as a Republican eager to fight public health experts. His political rise has made him a favorite to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 and helped him amass more than $130 million for his re-election campaign, an eye-popping amount that Democrats are not expected to come close to matching.
Mr. DeSantis did not face a primary challenger but still campaigned for down-ballot candidates and started a series of highly produced television ads, including a national spot on Monday inspired by the film “Top Gun,” with Mr. DeSantis, clad in a pilot jacket, “dogfighting” against “the corporate media,” which he frequently portrays as his foil.
He has also reminded Floridians at every turn that he refused to impose coronavirus lockdowns for very long in 2020, a position that thrust Mr. DeSantis into the national spotlight.
“They have opposed every decision I’ve made to keep this state open,” Mr. DeSantis said of Democrats on Tuesday. “To save their jobs. To keep kids in school. To save businesses.”
In the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, Representative Val B. Demings of Orlando, who had only nominal opposition, handily won the nomination to face off against Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican.
In Florida’s congressional primaries, far-right Republicans won in a number of races on Tuesday night. Many are now favored to win in November; Mr. DeSantis and Republicans in the State Legislature redrew House districts this year to strongly favor the G.O.P., leaving few competitive general election contests in a state known not long ago for its abundance of them.
Representative Matt Gaetz from the Florida Panhandle defeated Mark Lombardo, a Marine Corps veteran and retired FedEx executive. Cory Mills, an Army veteran and conservative commentator won in a suburban Orlando district that the Republicans are expected to win in the fall. And the Republican primary in Mr. Crist’s district in the Tampa Bay area, which was redrawn to favor the G.O.P., was won by Anna Paulina Luna, who was endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump.
In one bright spot for progressives, Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a 25-year-old activist from Orlando, bested nine other Democrats, including former Representatives Corrine Brown and Alan Grayson, in an open district in the Orlando area. Mr. Frost, who is Afro-Cuban, would be the first Gen Z member of Congress.
Florida Democrats went into Tuesday knowing that their candidates for governor had raised far less money than Mr. DeSantis and that their party infrastructure was far from robust compared with Republicans.
Mr. Crist won a resounding victory over Nikki Fried, the state’s agriculture commissioner, who had cast herself as a fresh option in a state where Democrats have fallen short in election after election and felt little optimism about their chances in November. Unofficial results showed Mr. Crist leading by such a wide margin that the race was called when the final polls in the state closed at 8 p.m.
“Nobody ever broke the glass ceiling on the first pitch,” Ms. Fried said in Fort Lauderdale after conceding to Mr. Crist. “We are going to make Ron DeSantis a one-term governor and a zero-term president of the United States.”
Florida has trended more and more Republican since President Barack Obama won the state twice by building a massive organization that no candidate or party leader has been able to replicate. President Biden lost Florida by more than 3 percentage points, the biggest margin in a marquee race since 2004.
The last incumbent Florida governor to lose re-election was Bob Martinez, a Republican, who conceded to Lawton Chiles in 1990. No Democrat has won the governorship since Mr. Chiles secured re-election in 1994.
Mr. Crist has lost two statewide races since he was first elected governor in 2006, including one as an independent before he switched to the Democratic Party in 2012. But some Democrats think a centrist like Mr. Crist would have succeeded against Mr. DeSantis in 2018, had voters nominated Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman, in the primary. Instead, Democrats chose Andrew Gillum, who captivated them with his progressive platform and charismatic personality but lost the general election by about 32,000 votes.
“There is a pragmatism from the Democratic perspective that says, ‘Yes, we want to fall in love, but we’d rather win,’ and at this point that is the main calculus driving people,” said Fernand R. Amandi, a Democratic pollster based in Miami.
Democrats see a narrow path to defeating Mr. DeSantis, in trying to cast him as a divisive leader who plays up his policies as promoting freedom despite restricting the rights of women, Black and Hispanic Floridians and the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
They also hope to persuade voters that Mr. DeSantis is to blame for the rising costs of living, especially when it comes to housing, electricity and insurance — issues that Democrats say have been ignored as Mr. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have fought cultural battles.
“I no longer recognize the leaders of the Republican Party,” Mr. Crist said on Tuesday night. “They’re extremists. They want to turn back the clock on our freedom. They’re trying to undermine our democracy in ways no one could have imagined.
“That stops here,” he continued. “That stops now. And it stops with our Florida.”
Ms. Fried initially struggled to home in on an effective message, though it crystallized after the Supreme Court eliminated federal protections for abortion rights. No woman has ever been elected Florida governor, and Ms. Fried ran on the belief that a female nominee would offer voters a clearer contrast against Mr. DeSantis.
But with limited money to advertise in the state’s expensive, urban television markets, Ms. Fried was unable to introduce herself to enough Democratic voters. Mr. Crist made her task more difficult when he cast her as a business lobbyist who was cozy with Republicans. Both questioned each other’s liberal bona fides, though the contest was defined less by sharp ideological differences and more by contrasts in style.
Mr. Crist led the Democratic race from the start, declaring his candidacy before Ms. Fried, the only Democrat currently holding statewide elected office. He devoted himself to reaching out to county and state leaders, and the early work paid off: Mr. Crist amassed more endorsements from Democratic officials, labor unions and local newspapers than his rival. During campaign stops, he posed for photos with people who greeted him simply as “Charlie.”
Michael Joseph, a city commissioner in North Miami Beach, endorsed Mr. Crist after the congressman traveled to see him last year, knowing that he needed the support of the Haitian American community that Mr. Joseph represents.
“He’s very personable and he remembers your name,” Mr. Joseph said. “I’ve never seen DeSantis reach out to different communities. Charlie didn’t have to come to my neighborhood to have a burger — but he did.”
Maggie Astor and Jennifer Medina contributed reporting.