TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ profile is growing, and Nikki Fried has noticed.
As DeSantis quickly becomes the national conservative media’s favorite governor and basks in recent polling that his approval rating is above 50 percent, the state’s agriculture commissioner is trying to increase her profile ahead of a likely gubernatorial run. She’s hired a top-tier Democratic consultant, is plotting high-profile attacks on DeSantis and growing her presence both on social media and national cable shows.
The jockeying as DeSantis’ star rises suggests that Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, is trying to solidify herself as her party’s best shot at knocking off DeSantis in 2022, an election cycle that is expected to feature a crowded Democratic primary field.
Their latest line of attack is centered on the late conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.
DeSantis announced his plan to lower Florida’s flags to half-staff in tribute to the conservative radio icon who died last week and was a favorite of former President Donald Trump. But Fried fired back this week, saying she would instruct state buildings under her control to keep their flags up. Some other local elected Democrats announced their plans to do the same.
Fried kept up the pressure on Tuesday, going on CNN to blast DeSantis for using the American flag “as a political prop.”
“What he’s doing is bending over backwards to honor a radio host who spent his entire career talking hate speech and talking bigotry and division and conspiracy theories,” Fried said. “And lowering our flag should be a symbol of unity, not division.”
Fried still isn’t officially in the 2022 governor’s race, but her early moves have created a sense of inevitability about her plans to challenge DeSantis next year. Some Democrats speculate Fried will officially enter the race sometime later this year after the annual session of the Florida Legislature.
While several Democrats — including former Gov. Charlie Crist — are seriously considering running, Fried has taken the most concrete steps to mount a challenge, including her recent pushback against DeSantis. Last week, she released a video on social media that took shots at the governor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vowed to hold him accountable. It has racked up nearly 500,000 views so far.
“She’s basically telegraphed she’s running for the seat,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based pollster and consultant who is not aligned with any potential candidate.
Amandi called Fried’s broadsides against DeSantis the “smart thing to do.”
“Why would she take on other democratic contenders? Take on who the ultimate opponent is,” he said.
Republicans have noticed the uptick in Fried’s attacks against the governor and have hit back, saying she advocated for Covid lockdown policies that didn’t work in states controlled by Democrats.
“The empathic approach toward dealing with a pandemic is to battle it effectively, and headlines now reflect that under Governor DeSantis, Florida got it right,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, by email. “Fried should spend more time reading up on the issues rather than reading a script on a teleprompter for political videos that do nothing to save lives or livelihoods.”
Fried, a lawyer and medical marijuana lobbyist, had never run for political office prior to her bid for agriculture commissioner. But while her political resume isn’t lengthy, it includes the one thing Democrats care about in Florida: A win. Fried won by less than 6,800 votes in 2018, but her victory stands as one of just three statewide wins for a Florida Democrat in the last 16 years.
She was also the first woman elected to the agriculture commissioner post, which brought with it a spot on the Florida Cabinet, the panel that has control several important state agencies. In a recent interview with POLITICO, Fried said that she was seriously considering a gubernatorial bid, and on Tuesday she told CNN that “we’re not there yet” when pressed on whether she was running.
Fried and DeSantis have fought over everything from Cabinet meeting agendas to hiring decisions, but the animus increased after Fried began routinely faulting DeSantis over the Covid-19 pandemic, with the latest broadsides over how the governor has handled vaccine distributions.
Fried’s coronation as Democratic nominee is far from assured and it looks unlikely that she will avoid a primary fight. She has also never run a bruising campaign in the spotlight that could bring up past incidents in her personal life. Last June she dismissed three top aides, citing their complaints that her fiancé was “abusive” to her during a weekend argument at a Fort Lauderdale resort where police escorted him off the property.
Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Florida political strategist and former Republican, said Fried’s recent offensive against DeSantis appears to be aimed at trying to convince other Democrats that she will be the nominee.
“I suspect this is an attempted preemptive strike instead of a general election ploy,” Stipanovich said. “There’s really no reason from the standpoint of a general election for her to fling herself on DeSantis now, other than to portray herself as the person best suited to fling themselves on DeSantis.”