RIVIERA BEACH, Fla. — Of all the outcomes in the messy, unpredictable and seemingly endless election in Florida, the unlikeliest may be that voters in the state elected a pro-pot, pro-gun-control, pro-regulation Democrat to statewide office.
Nikki Fried, a marijuana lobbyist seen as a rising star in her party, appeared to have narrowly won the race for state agriculture commissioner Monday, after her opponent, Republican Matt Caldwell, conceded. The Associated Press reported Sunday that Fried was ahead of Caldwell by 6,753 votes out of more than 8 million cast.
There was little attention on the race nationally, as the media glare focused on the more consequential Senate race between Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D), and the gubernatorial contest between former congressman Ron DeSantis (R) and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D). In both cases, the Republican claimed victory after a grueling recount that once again put the spotlight on Florida’s embattled election system.
But the race between Fried and Caldwell also was the subject of the historic statewide recount. And Democrats clung to Fried’s win as a sign that all is not lost for them in the nation’s largest battleground state, as the country heads into campaign season for the next presidential election.
“We think her win is a starting point for Democrats in Florida,” said Terrie Rizzo, chairman of the Democratic Party in Florida. “We’re building a strong bench in the party, and Nikki is a rising star.”
Fried, a former public defender, was endorsed by the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, the Sierra Club and Elizabeth Warren, the firebrand senator from Massachusetts and possible Democratic presidential contender.
Mike Barnett, chairman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County, suggested Fried’s victory had more to do with her gender than the candidates’ policy differences.
“I think it has less to do with issues, and more because people are calling this the ‘Year of the Woman,’ ” Barnett said.
Both Fried, 40, and Caldwell, 37 — a real estate appraiser and state representative from Lee County on the Gulf Coast — are seen as bright lights in their parties.
In an interview before his concession, Caldwell said he wasn’t surprised his race was so close. Citing the state’s explosive population growth, he said, “the electorate changes every week in Florida.”
“Statewide elections in Florida are competitive. The race for Senate and governor, neither of them won by a landslide,” Caldwell said.
Fried will be stepping into a job that has been held by only 11 people since the state’s founding in 1845 — all of them men, with the brief exception in 2001 of Terry Lee Rhodes, who served for four months as an interim appointee.
As a member of DeSantis’s Cabinet, she’ll oversee a department that traditionally has been friendly to farmers and businesses, and also to the National Rifle Association. In Florida, it’s the Agriculture Commission that conducts weapons background checks and issues concealed-weapons permits.
Fried is a gun owner, and she has a concealed-weapons permit. Still, she has advocated for stronger gun-control measures. In October, Fried tweeted, “I have a message for the @NRA: Your control over concealed weapons permits is finished. As Commissioner of Agriculture, I won’t be beholden to you — but to the people of Florida.”
The NRA endorsed Caldwell, and NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer called Fried an “anti-gun extremist who will eliminate our freedoms.”
Fried also supports new ways of using and monitoring agricultural runoff, which is blamed for contributing to the massive red-tide and blue-green algae outbreaks that plagued the state this year.
Fried said she believes her platform appealed not only to Democrats but also to Republicans and the growing segment of the electorate that does not affiliate with either major party.
“The issues that I have been talking about really cross party lines,” Fried said. “Access to medical marijuana, water quality in our state, sensible gun regulations. These are things that are not partisan. I believe that I was able to capture a lot of independent votes, and a lot of Republican votes.”
Fried’s big issue, however, was marijuana — medical as well as recreational. Florida voters in 2016 passed an amendment allowing the use of medical marijuana. The issue was popular — it passed by 71 percent — but the state has been slow in rolling it out.
Fried, whose marijuana lobbying firm is called Igniting Florida, said she saw firsthand how medical marijuana helped children with seizures. She said she also saw what she considered roadblocks put up by legislators that made it difficult to get a license to provide the substance.
Her outspoken support of marijuana came with a price during the election: Because Fried took donations from the medical marijuana industry, Wells Fargo and BB&T banks closed her campaign accounts briefly, citing policies against serving businesses related to marijuana, which is still prohibited under federal law.
Fried plans to keep pot in the forefront when she takes office.
“It’s definitely seen as taboo. They don’t even want to talk about it in Tallahassee,” Fried said. “I think now the conversation will start, and we’ll move the issue forward.”