She was the “new prospect” of the Florida Dems. Then a veteran pol came between her and DeSantis.
Fast forward three years and Fried heads into Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor fighting for his political life against Rep. Charlie Crist, the former Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Florida governor who has decades of electoral experience.
Crist outsold Fried, garnered more support and managed to rally swathes of the traditional Democratic Party coalition to his side, including the Florida teachers’ union, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, environmental groups and black religious leaders. Most polls show Crist leading Fried, including an which has Crist in double digits.
Whoever goes through Tuesday’s primary will face Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in November, and for many Democrats, the stakes couldn’t be higher. They accuse the governor of a quasi-authoritarian regime and regularly point out that he is more concerned with a potential White House bid in 2024 than helping Florida residents access affordable housing or fixing the housing market. crumbling state insurance.
Still, even the most optimistic Democrats are aware of the difficulties they face in November. DeSantis has more than $132.5 million in his campaign war chest and has amassed enormous power in the state legislature, which regularly approves of his priorities. The electoral landscape has shifted in favor of Republicans, too — with the GOP overtaking Democrats in voter registration last fall for the first time in the state’s modern political history.
“I know if I lose, people lose,” Fried said in a recent interview. “I know what I’m fighting for.
Some of Fried’s supporters are puzzled that Crist is seen as the frontrunner, especially after the Supreme Court in June struck down federal abortion protections enshrined in Roe vs. Wade, an issue that has helped propel abortion rights to the forefront of campaigns across the country. Since the ruling, Fried has tried to energize voters who are infuriated by the landmark ruling. She’s also spent the past three years pestering DeSantis on issues ranging from pandemic response to his focus on culture war issues.
“Nothing against the other Democratic candidates, and whoever wins, we’ll all rally around them, but I strongly believe that a good Jewish girl from Broward County against someone like Ron DeSantis is something that, I think would be a great match,” State Rep. Kelli Skidmore said. , a Boca Raton Democrat who backed Fried.
Throughout the primary, Fried, 44, portrayed Crist, 66, as a Democrat in name only, pointing to positions he held as a Republican that are quite outside of modern Democratic orthodoxy. . Crist tried for months to stay above the fray, but in the final weeks of the primary she began attacking Fried for his ties to the business lobby and other groups long seen as Republican-leaning. , including the state’s powerful sugar industry. Fried was a marijuana lobbyist before winning her 2018 race to become the state’s agriculture commissioner.
“I went specific,” retorted Crist, when asked last week about his attacks on Fried in the final days. He then added: “She decided to do what she did. To each his own style. »
And many top Democrats say Crist has won them over with his style and approach — he’s known as a “happy warrior” who tries to avoid going negative — and is seen as the best candidate to take on DeSantis. Crist tried to portray himself as someone who will unify Florida while accusing DeSantis of tearing the state apart.
“My instincts and experience tell me that Charlie has the best chance of blocking DeSantis’ extremist agenda,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a former Democratic National Committee leader and longtime Democrat who has known Crist for 30 years.
For many Democrats, beating DeSantis is the primary goal.
“I think the litmus test for voters in this election is one question and one question only: who is the best to beat Ron DeSantis,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster. “Nikki was unable to effectively answer this question, and Charlie did.”
How Crist boosted his support
Throughout the primary, Crist methodically reached out to key precincts for their support, a move his campaign says has helped build word of mouth and strong support in what will likely be a low-vote race. participation. Only a quarter of Democrats are expected to vote.
While Fried focused early on on building her profile on social media, especially Twitter, Crist went on a charm offensive. He huddled with key Democratic coalition blocs and leaned heavily on them when crafting his policy positions. Crist — whose progress on issues like abortion and gun control has been scrutinized by Fried — took the advice of those Democrats to change his stance on issues like marijuana legalization, qu he favors now. As Republican governor, Crist signed bills cracking down on marijuana grow houses and the sale of certain smoking paraphernalia.
The strategy worked, and he won crucial endorsements from key lawmakers, such as state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a black Democrat from the Miami area who backed Fried early in the race.
“It was a tough decision for me because I have a relationship with Nikki, I was on Team Nikki early on,” Jones said. “But as the pitch opened up and I spoke to people in my community, many local elected officials were on Team Charlie, and I found his message resonated with those people on the pitch.”
Skidmore, the Broward County state representative backing Fried, said she thinks state Democrats missed an opportunity by not rallying behind someone they worked closely with in Tallahassee. over the past few years to fight DeSantis.
“There are those who think Crist has a better chance of beating Ron DeSantis, and we all want that, but I miss so much white people running against white people,” Skidmore said. “From a personal and professional point of view and from an additional ‘X’ point of view, I really want to support her.”
How Roe vs. Wade remodeled the primary
A major turning point in the primary came when the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, sending a jolt of momentum through contests across the country. Crist and Fried, like other Democrats, tried to harness political energy, but Fried was seen as having received the biggest bump.
The Supreme Court’s decision resonated strongly in Florida, which a few months earlier had approved a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest.
“After Roe vs. Wade, white women and suburban women I was talking to who I thought were on Charlie’s side suddenly started glancing at Nikki,” said Brice Barnes, a Florida Democratic fundraiser. “I think after Roe vs. Wade that you had women asking ‘what does this mean for my daughter?’
One of Fried’s main lines of attack throughout the primary was Crist’s anti-abortion stance while a Republican. As recently as 2010, during an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, Crist said he supported “pro-life legislative efforts”. He has largely brushed off questions about his shift in stance on the issue during the 2022 midterms and relied on the support of some of the state’s most vocal abortion rights advocates, including state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat who previously worked for Planned Parenthood, and former Florida chief financial officer Alex Sink, who made his own failed bid for governor in 2010.
Sink said she was suspicious of Crist’s record as a Republican even after he became a Democrat. But she said that over the years, Crist has won over many Democrats, which she says is why Fried’s attacks on Crist over abortion rights and his having appointed conservative justices to the Florida Supreme Court as governor did not stick.
“In the race he got tangled up in pro-life, and I appreciate that and recognize that when he first became a Democrat I was skeptical and I think you have to prove to me that you can be a good democrat,” Sink said. “But now he’s been a Democrat for so long and been 100% pro-choice during that time, that I think most Democrats are comfortable with him.”
Sink’s support for Crist over Fried is notable as she co-founded Ruth’s List Florida, a group that recruits and trains political candidates who support abortion rights. Sink said she also supported Crist in part because her campaign seemed more viable and she had a good working relationship with Crist when she served as the state’s chief financial officer during her tenure as governor.
“We have a long-standing relationship, and he’s always been very responsive to me,” she said. “I just didn’t develop that kind of personal relationship, even from a political standpoint, with Nikki. That’s what stuck with me. I knew he was going to be able to build this great coalition needed.
Crist’s three decades in Florida politics, most spent as a Republican, have earned him name recognition and a fundraising pipeline. But some Democrats see his perceived frontrunner status as evidence that Fried did not do enough to build a political network, which could have helped him build goodwill within the party and close the primary field.
Fried’s campaign insists it can create an upheaval on Tuesday and have emptied bank accounts in a frantic push in the final moments. Some of those affiliated with Fried’s campaign worked on Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial bid in 2018, when he surged last week to score an upset in the Democratic primary. Gillum lost to DeSantis by approximately 35,000 votes.
Fried thinks money will flow into her campaign on Aug. 24 if she wins the primary because her victory will be a “punch in the arm” that will bring money and national attention, she said. during an interview at a recent campaign event. Fried also argued — amid a sharp pushback from the Crist campaign — that domestic donors would abandon the state if Crist won.
At a campaign stop in Tallahassee last week, Fried said she had “much more to lose” than she did when she won her upset victory in 2018 to become the only elected Democrat. to a statewide position.
But she also admitted that she was surprised that Crist ended up being her main adversary.
“I never imagined in a million years that he would think it would be a good time for him to run for governor again. I don’t know why he’s in this race,” he said. she said in the interview, “You talk to his people, they don’t think he can win in November. I have no idea why he’s here. I know we have a fighting chance.