U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist will face his first formidable opposition since he was elected to Congress in 2016. Tuesday’s primary will determine whether he faces a GOP establishment favorite or a staunch Trump ally.
Four Republicans are running, but polling indicates the race will come down to either Amanda Makki and Anna Paulina Luna.
While Luna has led in contributions for the past two reporting periods, Makki has had stronger fundraising overall. Makki was the biggest spender in the pre-primary reporting period, spending $442,799 in July.
Since the start of their campaigns, Makki has raised $1.2 million, and Luna has brought in $997,556.
If Makki wins the primary, she’ll head into the general election with about $2.6 million less than Crist, who ended July with $3.1 million cash on hand. Luna would start with just under $2.8 million less than the Democratic incumbent.
While Crist has a monetary advantage and incumbent status, the district is still a light shade of blue. Democrats only outnumber Republicans by 26,678 voters, and there are more than 146,896 no party-affiliated or third-party voters among the district’s 512,570 voters. Pinellas went for former President Barack Obama in both his runs, while also going to President Donald Trump in 2016.
However, ousting Crist will still be a monumental feat for Republicans. Crist easily crushed George Buck, who is running again this year, two years ago with 58% of the vote. He edged Jolly, the then-incumbent, with 52% of the vote in 2016, which came only after the district was redrawn to include downtown St. Petersburg and parts of the Southside, giving Democrats a voter registration edge.
If an incumbent with high approval ratings couldn’t hold the redrawn district, it’s hard to imagine Makki or Luna managing to retake the seat this year, at a time when Republicans face a potential guilt by association behind a President whose approval ratings are in the gutter.
Both Makki and Luna support Trump, but appeal to voters differently, reflected in their respective endorsements and campaign ads.
Luna, who is a military veteran turned conservative media personality, seeks to claim the far-right vote and is running as a staunch Trump ally.
Although also a Trump ally, former congressional staffer and lobbyist Makki is a bit more refined in her approach. Makki emphasizes Trump talking points like low taxes, a secure border and protecting Americans from an alleged socialist take over, which she accuses Crist of being a part of in one of her ads.
Luna has garnered endorsements from vocal Trump supporters like U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk. Makki, on the other hand, has secured more establishment Republican endorsements, like Florida’s GOP leadership.
However, neither candidate is as vocal or controversial in their approach as hyper-conservative Buck.
Buck garnered criticism recently after tweeting that only natural-born citizens should be able to serve in Congress — a plan that would disqualify Makki, who was born in Iran.
Buck also came under fire for implying in a December email that U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar should be hanged.
The candidate spent the least of the top three in the pre-primary filings but has spent the most since the start of his campaign — $969,391 in total. While that spend is likely not enough to earn him the GOP nomination, it adds to the overall GOP push to dethrone Crist. Taken as a whole, all three have been attacking Crist as a socialist-aligned Democrat who threatens American freedom and values.
Polling indicates Buck is in second place in the primary with 21% support to Makki’s 28%. However, the trendline favors Luna, who showed at 13% in the mid-July measure.
Though Makki’s support is strong, her lead isn’t bulletproof — a St. Pete Polls’ survey showed more undecided voters than Makki supporters.
With a large portion of voters up for grabs, it’s possible a late break toward Buck or Luna could carry them across the finish line.
A fourth candidate Sheila Griffin is also running, but isn’t viable. She’s raised just $6,642 this month and entered the final stretch with just $5,824 in the bank. Worse, her campaign is $20,928 in debt, putting her campaign deep in the red.
A fifth candidate, Sharon Newby, dropped out of the race and endorsed Luna.