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Nikki Fried needs to tack left if she wants to replace Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis | Column
Fried must find a way to differentiate herself in the Democratic primary.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks during the general assembly at the Florida Democratic State Convention Saturday in 2019. She announced Tuesday that she was running for governor.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks during the general assembly at the Florida Democratic State Convention Saturday in 2019. She announced Tuesday that she was running for governor. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Jun. 1
Updated Jun. 1

Nikki Fried finally made the obvious official. She has announced that she is running for governor, which she has been doing unofficially since the day she took the oath of office as commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services 2½ years ago.

Mac Stipanovich
Mac Stipanovich [ Mac Stipanovich ]

Fried is the second declared candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, the first being current U.S. representative and former state senator, commissioner of Education, attorney general and Gov. Charlie Crist. With the close of qualifying still a year away, Crist and Fried probably will not be the only candidates. There are always a few folks who like the ego rush of seeing their names on the ballot, but the number of those on the roster of plausible Democratic gubernatorial contenders has dwindled to nearly zero.

U.S. Rep. Val Demings, once thought to be a possible candidate for governor, is leaning into a race against U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy is seeking re-election. State Sen. Randolph Bracy is going to run for Demings’ congressional seat. Former U.S. Rep. and former gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham has joined the Biden administration. Progressive heartthrob state Rep. Anna Eskamani and up-and-coming state Sen. Jason Pizzo have taken a hard look at incumbent Gov. Ron DeSantis’ swelling campaign coffers and positive approval rating in an off-year election and decided that discretion is the better part of valor.

A self-financing candidate who is not in the political mix today could emerge, but candidates with that profile have historically underwhelmed Democratic voters in the Sunshine State, as the respective fourth- and fifth-place finishes of multi-millionaires Jeff Greene and Chris King demonstrated in the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

State Sen. Annette Taddeo says she is considering the race, and she has released an internal poll showing Crist and Fried running neck and neck, with her within striking distance, thanks in part to a large pool of undecided voters. This poll and the prospect of a Taddeo candidacy should be viewed with considerable skepticism, although it is doubtful she would significantly alter the trajectory of the race absent tons of money and a boatload of luck, a perfecta on which it would be unwise to bet the family farm.

The bottom line is that the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary appears anomalous in two important ways. First, there is the paucity of serious candidates. Second, there is no one in the left lane, no bona fide neo-New Dealer like Andrew Gillum in 2018 or a fire-breathing progressive like Eskamani today.

The lack of anyone on the left is Fried’s lifeline.

Both she and Crist are what pass for moderates in the Democratic Party, more traditional liberals than social democrats, more Biden than Bernie. And without any brand separation from Crist, Fried is not faring well. St. Pete Polls, highly ranked for accuracy in Florida polling by the independent national poll aggregation and analysis website FiveThirtyEight, conducted a survey from May 24 to May 26 that had a sample of 2,572 registered Democrats and a 1.9 percent margin of error. It was released just before Fried’s announcement, and it had to have harshed her buzz: Crist led her by 33 percentage points overall, 55 to 22.

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Among the two key constituencies in a Democratic primary — women and Blacks — the results were even worse. Women, who are apparently devoid of sisterly solidarity, preferred Crist by 37 percentage points, and his lead among Black voters was 46 percentage points. Doubt the poll? Halve the margins and it is still grim news for Fried.

What is to be done? Slugging it out with Crist on the center-left ground that is his historical sweet spot does not look promising. Fried needs separation, some room of her own. She cannot move to the right in a Democratic primary, so look for her to go left into the open lane. Like old-time baseballer Wee Willie Keeler, Fried needs to hit’em where they ain’t, strategically speaking.

The quest on which Fried has embarked is not like the down ballot race for Agricultural Commissioner that she won by a whisker in a recount against weak opposition in 2018. Defeating the veteran Crist, who is making his seventh statewide run, with all of the experience and name ID that entails, will require exceptional political skills and unflagging determination. And there will be no house rules. She is going to have to hit from the long tees in this campaign.

Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.