Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried
Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried moved to oust several local party chairs. Lynne Sladky/AP

Florida Democrats Can’t Even Win Over Themselves

State party Chair Nikki Fried moved to oust county chairs in pursuit of getting Democrats “back on track.” As critics accuse her of vindictiveness, the blowback is rattling insiders’ faith the party can do that by November.

Florida Democratic Chair Nikki Fried says her recent move to oust local party chairs is part of a bigger vision to get the party back on track for November. Some Democratic insiders see it as a personal vendetta fueled by her own ambition for the governor’s mansion.

During a grueling, nearly seven-hour party leadership call Sunday, the state party upheld two of Fried’s three proposed suspensions, pushing out the party chair in Miami-Dade, one of the state’s largest and most significant counties in the 2024 election cycle.

The showdown punctuated Florida Democrats’ existential plight going into this presidential election cycle. The Democratic Party is grappling with how to build back power in a state where it hasn’t won a statewide election in six years, has no statewide cabinet officials, has a Republican supermajority drawing the voting maps and is trailing Republicans by almost a million registered voters.

“We basically gave Nikki the Titanic after it hit the iceberg and said, ‘You’re the captain now,” Florida Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz said.

In a statement after Sunday’s meeting, Fried said she was simply fulfilling a pledge: “When I was elected chair, I made a promise that we would never have another election cycle like 2022,” Fried wrote, referencing the year Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection by nearly 20 points. “My hope has always been to get these local parties fully operational and back on track.”

Other Democrats told NOTUS that cutting out volunteer leaders — including at least one who voted against Fried’s bid to become chair last year — felt more personal than strategic. Several raised concerns that the move distracted from the party’s goals in November.

“I thought it was a colossal waste of volunteers’ time and donor dollars,” one voting member of Florida Democrats’ Central Committee said, describing the mood in the Zoom room as “vindictive.”

Thomas Kennedy, a former Democratic National Committee member from Florida, who recently left the Democratic Party and is a close ally of the ousted Miami-Dade chair, Robert Dempster, attributed Fried’s moves to personal ambition.

“I’ve been involved in organizing and here and there with the Florida Democratic Party for almost a decade now; I’ve never seen the party chair in this state or any other state just so brazenly use the party infrastructure as an exploratory committee for their own run,” Kennedy said. “This is not the role of a state party, and it’s definitely not the role of the state party chair — to promote themselves.”

A state-level Democratic staffer told NOTUS, “Nikki Fried is on year six of running for governor,” pointing to Fried’s picture being plastered on gas pumps when she was agriculture commissioner and more recent party fliers with her picture on them.

Fried was the most recent Democrat to win a statewide election in Florida in 2018 but lost the Democratic primary for governor to Charlie Crist in 2022. She has not commented on a future run, but it is widely assumed she’ll try again in 2026.

“The Florida Democratic Party is clear-eyed and fully focused on what it takes to win elections in 2024,” Andrew Feldman, a communications adviser for the Florida Democratic Party said. “There’s too much at stake here in Florida to get distracted by noise and nonsense.”

If becoming governor is the goal, using the state party as a launching pad will only work if Florida Democrats start winning elections, several party insiders told NOTUS. Two prominent Democrats called Fried’s role the most thankless job in politics.

“I think that there’s 10 people right now angling for a run, but the only thing that Nikki gets out of all that is, it doesn’t matter if she runs or doesn’t run, she has no chance of winning unless she improves the party’s numbers,” Moskowitz said. He has also signaled he’s considering running.

Moskowitz’s district includes Palm Beach, but he lost the county in 2022, where Fried attempted to suspend the chair but failed to get the votes. He won in the Broward County part of his district.

One state-level Democratic strategist described the bar for Democratic state party chair as “firmly in the ground,” where failure is expected and success is a long shot. One former party chair, Scott Maddox, was later sentenced to five years in federal prison over a bribery scheme. Another, Stephen Bittel, resigned after sexual harassment allegations. Under the most recent party chair, Manny Diaz, the party was mired in financial problems.

Democrats are facing a slew of challenges in the state. The Biden campaign largely counted Florida out in 2020. There’s no statewide elected Democrat to lead messaging, and the traditionally blue Miami-Dade voted red for the first time in two decades in 2022. Still, Fried has pointed to the mayor’s race in Jacksonville last spring, where a Democratic mayor won in a county that had gone for DeSantis, and a recent special election win in the Florida House, as evidence the party can win with investment and the right message.

One of her most essential tasks, according to insiders, is to convince the Biden campaign to invest in Florida this election cycle. There’s some evidence she’s making an effective case: Biden has visited Florida six times since taking office, most recently in January, and Kamala Harris 10 times, according to the state party. Harris visited Parkland, Florida, this past weekend.

With limited levers of power at her disposal, Fried announced her intentions to suspend Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Franklin county chairs over rules violations. The party has not publicized specifics.

The Franklin and Miami-Dade county chairs, both Black leaders, were suspended. The Palm Beach county chair, a white woman, survived the vote. “It definitely feels like grace was given to some and not to others,” Orlando-area state Rep. Anna Eskamani said.

Eskamani was on the call but did not have a vote, for which she told NOTUS she was grateful. “Everybody was in a very uncomfortable position,” she said. “I do think that this latest decision creates a lot more conflict than focuses on long-term collaborative power building.”

The three party chairs did not respond to requests for comment, though Dempster told Politico earlier this month, “Nikki Fried is taking a page from Ron DeSantis, using obscure bylaws and minor technicalities to remove officials she doesn’t like when we should instead be focused on winning elections for Democrats,” he said. “It’s especially egregious she is targeting me, a democratically-elected Black party leader in Miami-Dade county, in this climate of rising anti-Blackness in Florida.”

The resulting infighting and bad blood is rattling Democrats’ faith that the party can get it together by November.

“I don’t know who is right or who is wrong, but I don’t know why any of it actually matters. We’re not going to rebuild the Florida Democratic Party through DECs, we didn’t elect [Barack] Obama through DECs,” Democratic consultant Steve Schale told NOTUS, referencing the county party leadership, called Democratic Executive Committee.

Fried is not without defenders. “I know that she really came about it after a lot of deliberation with a lot of people, and while I hate the fact that it happened, I think that she did what she thought was right to make sure that we are getting back on track,” Annisa Karim, with the American Muslim Democratic Caucus of Florida, said.

And Fried has dodged even more criticism in recent weeks. Fried didn’t change the party’s process of giving the state’s delegates to the Democratic presidential incumbent and Democrats did not hold a primary in Florida this month. Florida Democrats also canceled the primary when the incumbents were Obama and Bill Clinton.

“That is a historical trend, but definitely something that we need to be looking at for the future if there’s other ways to make sure that more people are incorporated into access to the primary ballot,” Fried told reporters after the local elections last week, during which Republicans held their primary.

Still, some worry that the lack of a presidential primary and the takedown of local leaders are putting the party in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

“Intraparty infighting, canceling our Florida primary and causing a municipal electoral debacle — things like that generate bad headlines” Kennedy said. “Spend less time with embarrassing stuff and more time talking to voters like me that have left the base.”

Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.