Conservative legislator Matt Caldwell took a commanding lead in the Republican primary for agriculture commissioner Tuesday while medical marijuana lobbyist Nicole "Nikki" Fried cruised to victory in the Democratic primary.
The winner of the November election will replace incumbent Adam Putnam, who lost a hard-fought battle for the GOP nomination for governor. The job encompasses more than just farming, with the commissioner also in charge of consumer complaints and concealed weapons permits.
Caldwell, a state House member from North Fort Myers, had 34 percent of the vote, while rivals Denise Grimsley, a state senator from Sebring, and Baxter Troutman, a former state lawmaker and businessman from Winter Haven, were tied at 26 percent. A fourth candidate, retired Army Col. Mike McCalister, trailed with 12 percent.
Meanwhile Fried, a lawyer and medical marijuana lobbyist from Fort Lauderdale, easily beat Democratic rivals Jeffrey Duane Porter and Roy David Walker. She had 58 percent of the vote, compared to 25 percent for Walker, a South Florida environmental activist, and 15 percent for Porter, the mayor of Homestead.
Caldwell ditched his trademark bowties to campaign for the post. He quickly attracted endorsements from many Republican state House members and the National Rifle Association, as well as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Congressman Matt Gaetz.
Since his campaign launched in May, Caldwell has traveled the entirety of the state several times doing grass roots events. He's touted his record on protecting the Second Amendment and stumped on the need for tougher laws on illegal immigration.
Grimsley was endorsed by many of the state's sheriffs and senators, and after 14 years in the Legislature – first in the state House, then the Senate – showed her formidable fundraising chops, raising more than $3 million.
Her campaign leaned into Grimsley's background as an emergency room nurse, then running a hospital and her family's convenience store business.
She also promised to stop scammers' "infuriating" phone calls, which fall under the Department of Agriculture's responsibility to police.
Troutman mounted a formidable campaign because his personal wealth enabled him to spend $3 million to pay for TV ads. He is the grandson of legendary Florida citrus and cattle magnate Ben Hill Griffin Jr., and also owns his own job placement business.
His ads, primarily narrated by his wife Rebecca, focused on his family's citrus business, boasting he was "the only candidate who truly grew up with dirt in his toes." The ads emphasized the need for a fix to citrus greening and using water sustainability.
Combined, the Democratic candidates haven't come close to raising or spending what Troutman has put into the race with personal checks.
On the Democratic side, Fried has indicated that her campaign is more about the "consumer services" portion of the job of Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which is sure to shift the debate in new ways in the coming months before November.
She acknowledges that she doesn't fit the typical mold of the job – as a South Florida lawyer running for a position that usually finds candidates campaigning in cowboy hats to appeal to the agricultural vote.
But she's said she wants to use this position to move more oversight of the state's troubled, fledgling medical marijuana program under the Department of Agriculture to increase patient access and allow more farmers the choice of growing pot, since disease and international trade have made citrus farming increasingly difficult.
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