Nikki Fried seemed to have had a strong pitch when she first announced her candidacy for governor, and Democrats initially embraced her as “something new” for the party ticket.
For many voters in Florida, she was a fresh face on the political stumping grounds.
The party’s standard bearers in the past decade had often been white men. In 2014, former Republican governor Charlie Crist topped the ticket for Democrats. In 2018, it was U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
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Moreover, Fried, formerly a cannabis lobbyist, seemed positioned to galvanize a burgeoning, muscle-flexing electorate of voters in favor of legalizing marijuana in the Sunshine State. Two years before, 71% of voters had approved a breakthrough constitutional amendment creating Florida’s medical marijuana program.
But on Tuesday night, Fried’s rising star political future hit a dead end in a loss to Crist in which she garnered just over 35% of the vote.
Fried’s defeat came with a defiant message in her concession speech: “We are not done fighting.”
She said that Democrats must be united like never before and said she will “campaign up and down the ballot” to make sure that Democrats are elected. Fried emphasized that she would promote the right to privacy on the 2024 ballot and that the new constitutional amendment to protect women’s abortion rights would happen.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” Fried said.
She left the door open for spot on Democratic gubernatorial ticket.
Strategists: Fried missed opportunities to build broad Democratic base
Fried, the only statewide-elected Democrat, said she wanted to take down a corrupt, rigged system of government when she officially registered in the Democratic primary on June 1, 2021. She had high hopes to win the Democratic nomination and face-off against the man she long considered her target: Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. She launched her campaign pledging to strike down racial injustice, legalize marijuana and promote gun safety.
In hindsight Tuesday, political strategists said Fried had opportunities to boost her campaign, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. She could have drawn attention to her anti-NRA and pro-gun safety management of the state agriculture department.
Strategists added that environmental activists and top state progressives could have been Fried’s biggest supporters, especially given her position as the state agriculture commissioner and one of the leading female Democrats in a crimson red state government.
Yet, polls showed Crist steadily leading Fried throughout the months leading up to Tuesday.
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Fried’s campaign lagged behind from the beginning, said a Democratic political strategist who asked not to be identified. The strategist faulted Fried for failing to “nail down her party,” referring to her inability to build relationships with candidates in the lower-ballot races and local community political organizations.
Crist as an established politician vs. Fried’s rising status
That failure allowed Crist, a political veteran, to promote the narrative that he, not Fried, was the party’s best shot at beating DeSantis.
“My support for Charlie, despite the fact that I’m friends with both of them, was rooted in what I believed then and I believe now – that he has an exponentially better shot in November,” said state Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach.
Grieco said Fried never asked for his endorsement. However, he said he believes that Crist is more “marketable to the middle,” to appeal to “those who believe in conservative economics and a more liberal social agenda.”
That’s been another talking point within the Crist political ranks. In a state where Democrats are now outnumbered by Republicans, and where independents account for a pivotal share of the electorate, a more centrist candidate stands a better chance, the axiom preaches.
True or not, Fried’s inability to build a broader network of support allowed Crist to stake claim to the winnability mantra as well.
In comparison to Fried, Crist racked up a large number of endorsements from environmental activists, worker unions and current officeholders.
Crist raised more than $15 million in both his campaign account and political action committee, Friends of Charlie Crist. Fried, on the other hand, lagged behind with about $8 million in both her campaign account and political action committee, Florida Consumers First.
Fried’s backers say they have no regrets.
State Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, said that Fried did significant fundraising, promoted effective commercials and has been reaching out to voters relentlessly by crossing through the state.
“She is a fierce candidate. She is unapologetic. I think that that is important,” Skidmore said. “I would like to get across the finish line with Nikki Fried.”
Bizarre twists and turns: Roe v. Wade, Big Sugar and campaign strategy
Fried positioned herself to be the only true pro-choice candidate, citing the record in Crist’s Republican administration in the late 2000s in appointing pro-life judges in the Florida Supreme Court and generally supporting pro-life policies. She also positioned herself on the side of Florida farmers and being a new voice for Florida, away from the big corporations running Florida.
When Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, Fried was at the forefront of rallies.
Political strategists say this was the ultimate time for her to build momentum, but she still was lagging in polls and Crist won the support of a vocal abortion rights advocate, state Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, who is known as one of the state’s top progressives.
A source with knowledge of Fried’s campaign told the Palm Beach Post that Fried was effective in garnering some support following the Roe v. Wade ruling and was successful at gaining grassroots support.
“It may appear easy to criticize, but she still is the only person in decades to make any effort to improve the process for vulnerable communities,” the source said. “She’s the only person who’s cared and the only person who’s shown up to take steps to improve public safety about the practice. She doesn’t get the credit she deserves for spearheading that process from the beginning of her administration.”
Fried lost key players on her campaign staff, but her strategy seem to work
Fried struggled in managing her campaign staff. She lost key players in her campaign and her Ag department as well, such as Farah Melendez, her campaign manager and Franco Ripple, her office communications director.
Fried hired Kevin Cate, a notable campaign adviser, to craft her television advertisements that launched early August. The television spots got her traction, and got under Crist’s skin, as did Fried’s combative front in a televised debate with the former governor.
Her primary strategy consisted of crisscrossing the state to speak with voters, oftentimes staying far later than she anticipated for events to make sure she spoke to everybody in the room. She appeared in TV media interviews and did late-night talks frequently with Kevin Cate on Twitter Spaces to speak to voters who had questions for her.
The strategy seemed to pay off. In early August, a poll by the University of North Florida found Fried leading Crist by four percentage points.
Then Fried struggled in her response to a Palm Beach Post investigation.
In August, the Post’s investigation found that her claim to have made “historic” changes to sugar cane burning rules was not only misleading but had benefitted only the sugar industry, which, in turn, funded her campaign.
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When asked about the Post investigation, she did not dispute its findings but falsely charged Post reporters with having been paid by an environmental nonprofit to write the article, and said she could supply information to back that claim.
A subsequent Politifact investigation found her statement not only false, but “ridiculous.”
Another report in the Post also pointed out Fried’s response to an auditor general report listing deficiencies in reviews of gun-license applications within the Agriculture and Consumer Services Department’s Division of Licensing.
Fried responded to the auditor general’s conclusions by saying that department management had followed up with employees verbally, and that she ordered those discussions to be documented over email. Correct, but for Democrats, who broadly support profound gun safety measures, the response struck as underwhelmingly bureaucratic.
John Morgan, Florida Democratic donor and founder attorney and owner of the Morgan & Morgan law firm, said he had his reservations with Fried because of her lack of support when he was pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage in the state and her ties with Big Sugar. He believed she deflected the Big Sugar story released by the Palm Beach Post in a Trump-like manner through blaming the press.
“I believe Charlie has a better chance,” Morgan said. “She’s very capable, she’s very tenacious, but she’s very transactional.”