Palm Beach Post: Election 2018: Rookie Fried could be Dems’ lone statewide win
Florida Democrats flopped in statewide races Tuesday, with the notable exception of political neophyte Nikki Fried.
On election night, the 40-year-old attorney and marijuana advocate seemed to have joined fellow Democrats on the losing side of the ledger. But as elections supervisors in Broward and Palm Beach counties continued counting votes, Fried pulled closer to her rival, Republican Matt Caldwell.
On Thursday afternoon, Fried moved ahead. With more than 8 million ballots tallied, Fried led by 485 votes, according to the Florida Division of Elections. Fried, for her part, said her lead had widened to 575 votes. By late Thursday, state officials said she led by nearly 3,000 votes.
“We’re confident that by Saturday, when final results are certified, our lead will have grown, and the voters’ choice in the race for Agriculture Commissioner will be clear,” Fried said in a statement Thursday.
During the campaign, Fried touted cannabis and industrial hemp as a potential choice for Florida farmers whose bottom lines have been squeezed by canker and greening.
And Fried went a step farther, supporting full legalization of marijuana. On her website, Fried solicited campaign contributions in sums of $4.20, a nod to a numeric code for weed.
Fried drew attention to the contest by announcing that two national banks — Wells Fargo and BB&T — closed her campaign accounts because of contributions tied to the marijuana industry. Federal law bans cannabis, and bankers tend to avoid any whiff of marijuana-related deposits.
Another campaign promise: Creating a state-run bank to handle money generated by Florida’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry. “A state-run bank will allow businesses to have the services they need to compete and thrive, which will help this industry grow and add to Florida’s economy while expanding access for sick and suffering Floridians,” Fried said during the campaign.
Fried also called for tighter gun control.
Under current Commissioner Adam Putnam, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for more than a year stopped using results from an FBI crime database that checks whether applicants to openly carry weapons in Florida have a disqualifying history in other states. The state employee in charge of the program was unable to log into the system.
Fried made a point of calling out the National Rifle Association.
“What we have seen in the last eight years is how involved the NRA has been in this process,” Fried said in a pre-election interview. “I’d do a systematic overhaul of the entire program.”
While Fried criticized the NRA, Caldwell embraced his Second Amendment bona fides.
“I am the principled conservative in the race and the only candidate who has consistently received an A-rating from the NRA throughout his entire time in office,” Caldwell said on his website.
Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said Fried was buoyed in part by her gender and in part by her campaign’s social media savvy. What’s more, MacManus said, Fried benefited from what she called a low-intensity campaign by Caldwell, 37, a four-term legislator from Fort Myers.
That helped Fried post a better showing than Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum.
“They had tougher competition in a way,” MacManus said. “Caldwell had no visibility.”
Caldwell spent $5.5 million, compared to Fried’s budget of $2 million. Despite the lopsided finances, MacManus said she saw no ads for Caldwell in Tampa but frequent spots for Fried.
Fried is an atypical candidate for agriculture commissioner. She grew up in Miami and is neither a country girl nor a farmer. She’d be the first woman elected to the post. (Gov. Jeb Bush appointed a woman, Terry Rhodes, to the cabinet position in 2001 after the elected agriculture commissioner stepped down.)
In contrast to the progressive positions staked out by Gillum, Fried tended toward the middle. On election day, Fried tweeted a photo herself voting with her father.
“Growing up, my dad was a diehard Republican & my mom was a strong Democrat — it taught me that people & values matter more than party,” Fried wrote.
“We were successful in communicating to voters the contrast between Nikki and our opponent in a favorable way,” said Fried spokesman Max Flugrath. “We talked about the issues that are important to everyday Floridians and it allowed us to pick up significant crossover support, which is what got us within such a razor-thin margin.”
By Jeff Ostrowski