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- 12th Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer services
After a surprise 2018 win that made her a leading Democratic voice in Florida and a pandemic spent as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief antagonist, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced Tuesday she will try to unseat the governor in 2022.
As a young, female elected official who has made pro-marijuana policies central to her political brand, Fried is not the typical contender for statewide office in Florida, and she’s leaning into that by pitching her potential campaign as “something new.”
— Nikki Fried (@NikkiFried) June 1, 2021
"I'm unafraid. I'm tested. I'm ready," Fried said, speaking directly into the camera in a two-minute video launching her campaign. "And I know you're ready for something new, too."
Without mentioning DeSantis, Fried said that she was read to "break the rigged system in Florida," which she said was "anti-democratic,"
Fried, 43, is the second Democrat to launch a campaign for governor after U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist announced his campaign last month.
Fried narrowly won the agriculture commissioner job in 2018 and is the only statewide elected Democrat.
Fried a sharp critic of DeSantis
A Florida medical marijuana card-holder who uses medical cannabis to treat a sleep disorder, Fried is likely to emphasize marijuana legalization in her campaign. She previously worked as a marijuana lobbyist.
“2022 will be a referendum on marijuana — and getting rid of any electeds standing the way," Fried tweeted recently.
Fried also has attracted attention as a sharp and relentless critic of DeSantis throughout the pandemic, slamming his policies at every opportunity.
The divide between Democrats and DeSantis has only deepened in recent months, following a legislative session where he pushed election law changes, social media regulations, and a crackdown on violence stemming from demonstrations like those prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Fried faces plenty of uphill challenges
Still, in a state where Democrats last held the Governor’s Mansion in 1998, Fried faces plenty of uphill challenges. In campaign financing, Fried has $1.5 million in the bank – compared with $31.6 million for DeSantis, whose national profile is on the rise amid talk among Republicans that he could be a White House contender in 2024.
Whatever DeSantis’ higher ambitions, first will come the governor’s race. While the governor has not formally announced his re-election campaign, it’s a certainty.
Also, he’s equally certain to be a target for Democrats both in Florida and nationally in November 2022.
DeSantis and Fried were both elected in 2018 by wafer-thin margins. While DeSantis won the governor’s race by only 32,463 votes, or .4%, over Democrat Andrew Gillum, Fried’s contest with Republican Matt Caldwell was even tighter — with the Democrat capturing the seat by only 6,753 votes.
Fried, a Broward County attorney, was one of the few political bright spots to emerge in Florida for Democrats that election year and quickly emerged as a leader with the defeat of three-term U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by Republican Rick Scott.
Fried’s position made her a natural adversary for the governor, whose successful campaign was pushed by endorsements from then-President Donald Trump and contributions from many of his closer allies.
Signs of her challenging DeSantis
Signs of Fried getting ready to challenge DeSantis became stronger in February, when she released a one-minute, campaign-style video in which she attacked the governor’s leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“While he lashes out at everyone else as if he’s the victim, we all know who the real victims are — every Floridian who has lost a loved one, lost a job, lost a way of life,” Fried said.
She said that Florida under DeSantis was struggling more in the pandemic because of his “blind allegiance to an insurrectionist.”
On the Cabinet, Fried frequently disputed the governor’s approach on policy matters, including environmental issues. She came under attack from Florida Republicans for halting online concealed weapons permit applications during the pandemic, with the NRA dubbing her “anti-gun Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.”
The Florida GOP blasted Fried Tuesday in a tweet that described her as "a lockdown lobbyist who can't be trusted to make the right decisions for Florida families."
University of Central Florida Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett said Fried’s strengths include the fact that she actually won a statewide race in Florida, something few Democrats have done in recent decades.
Being a female candidate also could be an advantage at a time when many voters are looking for something different and male candidates have been the norm for statewide office, Jewett said.
Nikki Fried's name recognition
Fried isn’t particularly well known, though, and does not have the name recognition of Crist or DeSantis. And Jewett is skeptical that there are enough single-issue marijuana voters to make that a decisive issue.
“I don’t know that in a higher profile race like governor if there is enough voters who think that legalizing marijuana is their main concern. Is that going to be enough?” Jewett said.
Republicans seem ready for Fried. They accused her of spending much of her time on the Cabinet positioning herself for the run she made official Tuesday.
“Floridians want someone who will fight for them tirelessly, and Fried’s desperate political posturing and reliance on lies and pandering to make a point prove she’s the exact opposite of what Florida needs," said Joanna Rodriguez, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association.
Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Nikki Fried, a Democrat, challenging Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis