Nikki Fried barely won her first and only election. Supporters see her as Democrats’ best hope to topple Ron DeSantis

To many, Nikki Fried is the obvious, and perfect, choice.

Fried is young; she’s a woman; she does well on television; she’s Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat; and she’s been a prominent voice countering Gov. Ron DeSantis.

On Tuesday, she’s expected to formally declare her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor — a campaign she’s unofficially been running since she was elected to her current job as state agriculture commissioner in 2018.

It’s a gamble. Fried faces a formidable foe in the Democratic primary, Congressman Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg. He’s served in multiple offices, including a term as the state’s Republican governor, and is now a prominent elected Democrat.

If Fried wins the nomination, she’d face Republican DeSantis, an incumbent who many Democrats see as next-to-impossible to beat.

Fans of Fried are optimistic. “She’s a very viable candidate,” said state Rep. Dan Daley, who represents northwest Broward. “She knows how to win as a Democrat in Florida. She’s done a tremendous job as the only statewide elected Democrat in keeping people honest the last couple of years, particularly during the COVID pandemic.”

Neutral observers are less sanguine about her chances.

“Nikki Fried has a great amount of potential, and it’s been stored up over the last couple of years, and now it’s time to unleash that potential on the state and see where it leads,” said Sean Foreman, a political scientist at Barry University.

She’s in the position as the top Democrat in the state because of an extraordinarily narrow win in her race for agriculture commissioner in 2018. She’s the only Democrat to win a statewide election in Florida since 2012, a time frame that brought 11 Republican victories.

But she’s been in politics for only 36 months and won by just 6,733 votes out of 8,059,135 votes cast. Fried received 50.04% of the vote to Republican Matt Caldwell’s 49.96%.

Running for agriculture commissioner is nothing like running for governor. Fried has never faced the kind of candidate and special interest group opposition research and news media examinations that will scrutinize every tidbit of her life.

“It’s going to be a bruising primary because so much is at stake and the anticipation has been building,” Foreman said.

Fried got a little taste during an interview that aired April 18 on the WFOR-Ch. 4 “Facing South Florida” program, in which she received an intense grilling on a range of subjects from how she got her medical marijuana card — she said she has a sleep disorder — and a 2020 incident in Fort Lauderdale involving Fried, her fiancé and police.

Police escorted him off the property of a hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach, after what Politico reported was an argument between the couple. Pressed in the TV interview over comments she made at the time that “I’m a 42-year-old, independently strong female and would never allow somebody to put their hands on me and to abuse me,” she said she wasn’t suggesting abuse victims are weak.

Before her election, Fried was a medical marijuana lobbyist, and it was the signature issue of her 2018 campaign. Her fiancé is the founder of a company that is one of the state’s biggest suppliers of medical marijuana, though he severed ties before Fried was elected.

Crist, by contrast, has been in politics for 35 years and won eight elections and lost four, including several for important offices. His two marriages, both of which ended in divorce, have been dissected, making it less likely anyone will come up with new lines of attack.

A successful campaign for a major statewide office would require much, much, much more than the $2.6 million she raised for the primary and general election campaigns in 2018.

Florida has 10 TV ad markets, including Miami-Fort Lauderdale and Tampa-St. Petersburg, two of the nation’s largest and most costly, and a statewide advertising and digital campaign can cost $400,000 to $2 million a week.

Since taking office, her political organization, Florida Consumers First, has raised about $1.4 million and spent a little more than $600,000. Her fundraising has picked up this year, and she’s taken in $667,000 in February, March and April.

The Friends of Ron DeSantis political organization took in $23.3 million in February, March and April. Crist announced his candidacy on May 4 and hasn’t yet had to file a fundraising report.

As Democrats in Florida chafed at the way DeSantis has governed, many found solace in Fried, who offered policy alternatives to and criticisms of the Republican governor. At an early May news conference, Fried called DeSantis an “authoritarian dictator who is borderline fascism.” State Sen. Tina Polsky, who represents southern Palm Beach County and northwestern Broward, said by text message that Fried has “done a good job of pushing back against some of Governor DeSantis’ worst policies.”

Fried is a generation younger than Crist — at 64, he’s a baby boomer; at 43, she’s part of Gen X — in a party that needs to energize younger voters to win elections. “Nikki represents that next generation of leaders,” Daley said.

Congressman Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried want the 2022 Democratic nomination to run for Florida governor.

Congressman Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried want the 2022 Democratic nomination to run for Florida governor. (Chris O’Meara, Pedro Portal and J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Fried is a woman running against a man in a party that has more female than male voters in its primaries. Fried could be the state’s first female governor. With U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Orlando, preparing to challenge U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said via text message that “the ballot is shaping up with a lot of strong women, and that’s exciting.”

Fried is a fresh face, and Crist’s experience means he’s been around a long, long time. Some Democrats think Crist has had his chance and the party should turn to someone new.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, who represents a Broward/Miami-Dade County district, said the party could benefit from a different kind of candidate at the top of the ticket. “White men have been leading for quite some time,” said Jones, who is Black.

The 2018 nominee, Andrew Gillum, was a Black man; the 2014 nominee, Crist, was a white man; the 2010 nominee, Alex Sink, was a white woman. All lost.

And there are still some skeptics about Crist’s Republican past. Among his previous offices, Crist served a term as the state’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2011. He ran unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010, then evolved into a Democrat and was the party’s nominee for governor in 2014, losing narrowly to then-Gov. Rick Scott. Some Democrats think Crist has had his chance.

Representatives from the Fried and Crist campaigns declined to comment about what’s coming after the expected announcement Tuesday.

Fried grew up in Miami and lived in Fort Lauderdale before moving to Tallahassee when she became agriculture commissioner. Besides lobbying, something her official biography refers to as work as a “government consultant,” she’s been an assistant public defender and a foreclosure defense attorney. She was student body president at the University of Florida.

If her name sounds vaguely familiar, even to those who don’t follow politics, it may be because — like previous people elected to the job of commissioner of agriculture and consumer services — her name is on a sticker on each of the state’s gasoline pumps.

It’s one thing that inevitably comes up in conversations about her candidacy.

“When people go fill up their gas tanks, they see Nikki Fried,” Jones said. Most voters, Foreman said, “still don’t know anything about her other than seeing her name on gas pumps.”

The name recognition benefits are limited. The previous commissioner, Adam Putnam, was widely seen as the frontrunner for the 2018 Republican nomination for governor — until then-President Donald Trump anointed DeSantis as his favorite.

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Early in her term, Fried tried to take the name-recognition possibilities farther than before by having her agency printed up gas pump stickers with her name and picture, a feature that hadn’t been present before. The Republican-controlled Legislature banned future expenditures of tax money on stickers featuring pictures.

The primary is almost 15 months away, on Aug. 23, 2022, and the field isn’t settled.

State Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade County suggested in a statement Wednesday she may run. “With Congresswoman Val Demings pivoting to a likely U.S. Senate campaign, I will continue meeting with supporters across the state to assess the best path for me to do the most good for the people of Florida.” Taddeo was the candidate Crist picked as his running mate to run for lieutenant governor on the 2014 ticket.

Former state Rep. Rick Stark of Weston, chairman of the Broward Jewish Democratic Caucus, said Fried could be successful. “I think she’s got a shot, at least as far as winning the primary,” Stark said.

After that, he said, he’s not brimming with optimism about his party’s chances. “Today I would say I think DeSantis is going to clean anybody’s clock.”

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