The coronavirus pandemic may be receding nationally, but the issue will be a major factor in Repbublican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reelection campaign next year in Florida.
On Tuesday, Florida’s Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried officially announced her candidacy for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Ms. Fried, the only Democrat currently serving in statewide office, is a prominent critic of Mr. DeSantis’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“At every turn, I’ve seen a system that was rigged and works against the people,” Ms. Fried said when announcing her candidacy.
The 43-year-old agriculture commissioner is pitching herself to voters as a “new face” who above all is capable of ending the Democratic Party’s two-decade gubernatorial losing streak.
On paper, Ms. Fried seems like the perfect candidate. A charismatic and telegenic Democrat, who, in her only term as a statewide elected official, has charted a middle-of-the-road approach.
But despite that attribute, Ms. Fried enters the governor’s race as the biggest critic of the very policies that have made Mr. DeSantis a national star.
Last year, the governor took the politically risky move of reopening Florida’s economy and easing travel restrictions at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was still raging in much of the country.
The decision, which was lambasted by the media and Democrats, likely saved the state’s tourism-centered economy from cratering. Since reopening the state, Mr. DeSantis has only cemented his standing among Republicans by banning vaccine passports and making it harder for local governments to issue individual mask mandates.
Mr. DeSantis’ coronavirus gamble appears to have paid off. A poll conducted in May found the governor with a 55% approval rating among Florida’s voters, including 57% of independents.
Ms. Fried, however, is on record opposing the governor every step of the way when it comes to the coronavirus. When Mr. DeSantis first announced his decision to ease COVID restrictions last year, Ms. Fried lambasted the move as dangerous.
“Governor DeSantis has lost control of Florida’s COVID-19 response,” said Ms. Fried at the time. “His policies are simply not working, and he’s recklessly reopening Florida despite the data screaming for caution.”
Similarly, the agriculture commissioner was critical when the governor opted to reopen Florida’s schools last October.
“We know that with kids, you don’t always know if they have it,” Ms. Fried told a local television station last year. “If they have a preexisting condition, a lot of kids you might not know that. And so you put a child back into the school system, even though they’re asymptomatic, they’re going to pass it on to their peers.”
Although Ms. Fried made no mention of the coronavirus when jumping into the race Tuesday, Republicans are unlikely to let voters forget her stance.
“Instead of using her office to work for the people of Florida, Nikki Fried has spent the last two and a half years working to better herself,” said Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association.
“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,” Ms. Rodriguez said.
Mr. DeSantis, who narrowly won the governorship in 2018, has already declared his intention to seek reelection next year. The governor is seen as a conservative hero for his handling of the coronavirus and willingness to tackle issues important to the Republican base.
Florida, for instance, passed a mandatory E-Verify law last year, requiring all public and private employers to ensure that new hires are lawful residents and not illegal immigrants. Mr. DeSantis has also sought to crack down on Big Tech and ban the teaching of critical race theory in Florida’s schools.
All of that has turned Mr. DeSantis into a potentially strong White House contender in 2024, provided former President Donald Trump opts against running. It also makes the governor a bigger target for Democrats next year.
Apart from Ms. Fried, the Democratic gubernatorial primary already has one high-profile entrant, Rep. Charlie Crist.
Long a fixture in Florida politics, Mr. Crist previously served as governor for one term while a member of the Republican Party. Mr. Crist infamously left the GOP in 2010, amid sinking poll numbers and vehement opposition from the right.
That year, he opted against seeking reelection to the governorship, choosing instead to launch a quixotic bid for the U.S. Senate as an independent. Mr. Crist ultimately lost that race to Republican Marco Rubio.
In 2012, Mr. Crist endorsed the reelection campaign of then-President Barack Obama. Once Mr. Obama won, Mr. Crist became a Democrat and was the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2014.
Although he lost the race, Mr. Christ made a successful comeback in 2016 winning a swing-district seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Mr. Crist’s ability to hold the seat, which is about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, is considered a major selling point for his gubernatorial ambitions.
Mr. Crist’s campaign also benefits from the record he compiled during his last stint in the governor’s mansion, from 2007 to 2011.
“We got a lot done for Florida,” Mr. Crist said in a video announcing his candidacy. “We protected 27,000 acres of the Everglades, saved the jobs of 20,000 teachers, cut property taxes for our seniors … restored voting rights for 150,000 Floridians who did their time and we pulled together to pull our state out of the great recession.”
It is unclear, though, whether that messaging will be enough.
Mr. Crist has not won a statewide contest since 2006 and is relatively unknown to both recent transplants and younger voters. The latter category, leaning more progressive on social and economic issues, is considered especially unlikely to be impressed by the former Republican.
Ms. Fried appears to understand that reality as evidenced by her emphasis on winning and position as a fresh-faced outsider.
“This won’t be easy, those in power will do whatever harm it takes to stay there,” Ms. Fried said. “But I’ve spent my whole life taking on the system, I’m unafraid, I’m tested, I’m ready and I know you’re ready for something new too.”