TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Nikki Fried was sold as the “new hope” for Democrats in Florida — a fighter who would help her party break two decades of Republican dominance in the state.
Or at least that’s what the poster promised.
Displayed at Florida Democrat’s 2019 annual convention in Orlando, the poster depicted Fried as Princess Leia from the “Star Wars” franchise. The message was clear: Fried, who narrowly won a statewide race for agriculture commissioner the previous November, was prepared to lead the Democratic rebellion against Republicans.
Fast forward three years and Fried is heading into Tuesday’s Democratic primary for governor fighting for her political life against Rep. Charlie Crist, the former Republican Florida governor turned independent turned Democrat, who has decades of electoral experience.
Crist has outraised Fried, garnered more endorsements and managed to rally chunks of the traditional Democratic Party coalition to his side, including Florida’s teachers union, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, environmental groups and Black faith leaders. Most polls show Crist leading Fried, including one that has Crist up by double digits.
Whoever advances through Tuesday’s primary will take on Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in November, and to many Democrats the stakes couldn’t be higher. They accuse the governor of near-authoritarian rule and routinely point out that he’s more concerned with a potential White House bid in 2024 than helping Florida residents gain access to affordable housing or fix the state’s crumbling insurance market.
Yet even the most hopeful Democrats are aware of the difficulty 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 routinely approves his priorities. The electoral landscape has also shifted in Republicans’ favor — 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, the people lose,” Fried said in a recent interview. “I know what I’m fighting for.”
Some of Fried’s supporters are perplexed that Crist is viewed as the frontrunner, especially after the Supreme Court in June struck down federal abortion protections enshrined in Roe v. Wade, an issue that helped propel abortion rights to the forefront of campaigns across the nation. Since the ruling, Fried has attempted to energize voters who are incensed by the landmark decision. She has also spent the past three years aggressively dogging DeSantis on issues from pandemic response to his focus on culture war issues.
“Nothing against other Democratic candidates, and whoever wins we will all rally around them, but I strongly feel a good Jewish girl from Broward County against someone like Ron DeSantis is something I think would be a great matchup,” said state Rep. Kelli Skidmore, a Boca Raton Democrat who has endorsed Fried.
Throughout the primary, 44-year-old Fried has painted the 66-year-old Crist as a Democrat in name only, highlighting positions he held as a Republican that are very much outside modern Democratic orthodoxy. Crist for months tried to stay above the fray, but in the final weeks of the primary started attacking Fried over her ties to the business lobby and other groups long thought of as Republican-leaning, including the state’s powerful sugar industry. Fried was a marijuana lobbyist before she won her 2018 race to become the state’s agriculture commissioner.
“I’ve gone accurate,” retorted Crist, when asked last week about his attacks on Fried in the closing days. He then added: “She’s decided to do what she’s done. Everyone has their own style.”
And many top Democrats say Crist 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 has tried to depict himself as someone who will unify Florida while accusing DeSantis of tearing apart the state.
“My gut and my experience tells me Charlie has the best shot at blocking DeSantis’s extremist agenda,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the former head of the Democratic National Committee and a longtime Democrat who has known Crist for 30 years.
For many Democrats, beating DeSantis is the top 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 not able to answer that one question effectively, and Charlie has.”
How Crist shored up support
Throughout the primary, Crist methodically reached out to key constituencies for their backing, a move his campaign says helped build word of mouth and important support in what will likely be a low turnout race. Just a quarter of Democrats are expected to vote.
While Fried focused early on building up her profile on social media, particularly Twitter, Crist went on a charm offensive. He huddled with key blocks of the Democratic coalition and relied on them heavily when drawing up his policy positions. Crist — whose evolution on issues such as abortion and gun control has been scrutinized by Fried — took advice from those Democrats to change his stance on issues such as marijuana legalization, which he now favors. As a Republican governor, Crist signed into law bills that cracked down on marijuana grow houses and the sale of some smoking paraphernalia.
The strategy worked, and he picked up crucial endorsements from key lawmakers, such as state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Black Miami-area Democrat who supported Fried early in the race.
“It was a difficult decision for me because I have a relationship with Nikki, I was Team Nikki very early on,” Jones said. “But as the field opened up and I talked to people in my community, many local elected leaders were Team Charlie, and I found his message was resonating with these people on the ground.”
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 shot at beating Ron DeSantis, and we all want that, but I am just so bored of white guys running against white guys,” Skidmore said. “From a personal and professional and an extra ‘X’ perspective, I just really want to support her.”
How Roe v. Wade reshaped the primary
A major turning point in the primary came when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, sending a jolt of momentum through contests across the country. Both Crist and Fried, like other Democrats, tried to harness the political energy, but Fried was perceived to have received the biggest bump.
The Supreme Court’s ruling resonated loudly in Florida, which just months earlier had approved a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest.
“After Roe v. Wade, white women and suburban women who I talk to and thought would be in Charlie’s camp all of a sudden started to take a look at Nikki,” said Brice Barnes, a Florida Democratic fundraiser. “I do think after Roe v. 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 rights position while he was a Republican. As late as 2010, when making an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate, Crist said he supported “pro-life legislative efforts.” He has largely brushed off questions about his changing 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 her own failed bid for governor in 2010.
Sink said she was wary of Crist’s record as a Republican even after he became a Democrat. But she said 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 have not stuck.
“In the race, he has gotten tangled up in the pro-life thing, and I appreciate that and acknowledge when he first became a Democrat I was skeptical and of the opinion you have to prove to me you can be a good Democrat,” Sink said. “But now he has been a Democrat so long, and has been 100 percent pro-choice over that time, that I think most Democrats are comfortable with him.”
Sink’s support of Crist over Fried is notable because she co-founded Ruth’s List Florida, a group that recruits and trains female political candidates who support abortion rights. Sink said she also supports Crist partly because his campaign seemed more viable, and she had a good working relationship with Crist when she served as the state’s chief financial officer during his one term as governor.
“We have a long-standing relationship, and he has just always been very responsive to me,” she said. “I just did not develop that kind of personal relationship, even from a policy standpoint, with Nikki. That is what swayed me. I knew he was going to be able to build that big coalition needed.”
Crist’s three decades in Florida politics, most spent as a Republican, brought him name recognition and a fundraising pipeline. But some Democrats see his perceived frontrunner status as evidence Fried didn’t do enough to build a political network, which could have helped her create goodwill within the party and close the primary field.
Fried’s campaign insists it can pull off an upset on Tuesday and have drained bank accounts in a frenzied push in the final moments. Some of those affiliated with Fried’s campaign worked on Andrew Gillum’s 2018 bid for governor, when he surged in the closing week to score an upset in the Democratic primary. Gillum lost to DeSantis by about 35,000 votes.
Fried believes money will flow into her campaign on Aug. 24 if she wins the primary because her victory will be a “shot in the arm” that will attract national money and attention, she said in an interview at a recent campaign event. Fried also contended — amid loud pushback from the Crist campaign — that national donors will abandon the state if Crist wins.
During a campaign stop in Tallahassee last week, Fried said she had a “lot more to lose” than she did when she scored her upset win in 2018 to become the only Democrat elected to statewide office.
But she also acknowledged that she was surprised that Crist wound up being her primary opponent.
“I didn’t imagine in a million years that he would think that this would be a good time for him to re-run for governor. I don’t know why he’s in this race,” she said in the interview. “You talk to his own people, they don’t think he can win in November. I have no idea why he’s here. I know we’ve got a fighting chance.”
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