Former medical-marijuana lobbyist Nikki Fried is on the verge of being the only Florida Democrat to capture a statewide win, gaining votes over Republican state Rep. Matt Caldwell in the race for agriculture commissioner after a manual recount was completed Sunday.
The manual recount also had no effect on the outcome of three razor-thin legislative races, in which Democrat Janet Cruz flipped a state Senate seat and House Republicans picked up one seat and held onto another.
Fried’s lead over Caldwell in the Cabinet race peaked at 6,753 votes on Sunday, adding 1,446 votes to her machine-recount total, according to results posted on the state Division of Elections website.
Fried, a lawyer from Fort Lauderdale, has repeatedly claimed victory in the race, but Caldwell’s campaign wasn’t ready to concede after the bulk of the manual recount results were provided to the state Sunday.
The Republican’s campaign previously had sued the Broward County elections office and, on Sunday, continued to explore how heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties handled the recount.
In again declaring victory as the first woman to be elected Florida agriculture commissioner, the 40-year-old Fried said she intends to represent all Floridians.
“You chose a new vision, one that reflects the priorities of the people,” Fried, who won with 50.04 percent of the vote, said in a press release issued early Sunday afternoon. “To everyone who didn’t vote for me, I will be your voice in Tallahassee too.”
Fried had already set up a transition team —- headed by Congressman Darren Soto of Orlando and former Congressman Patrick Murphy —- and congratulated Caldwell, who outspent her by a two-to-one margin.
“It’s now time for us to come together and work in union to govern for the people of Florida, and I plan to work my hardest so I’m ready to tackle the issues as your next agriculture commissioner,” Fried said in Sunday's release.
The state canvassing board is scheduled to certify the results of the 2018 election Tuesday morning.
The manual recount also cemented a victory for Gov. Rick Scott. The Republican governor defeated incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by 10,033 votes after the manual recount was completed, with all 67 counties reporting.
The manual recount, ordered for race that fell within a 0.25 percent margin after a machine recount was completed last week, also finalized partisan lineups in the state Legislature.
In Hillsborough County, House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, finished 411 votes atop incumbent Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa. Cruz’s victory, which boosted the minority caucus by one in the Senate, sets the partisan balance in the upper chamber at 17 Democrats and 23 Republicans heading into the 2019 Legislative session.
In the House, the final count is 73 Republicans and 47 Democrats, a gain of six seats for Democrats. A pair of Republicans —- Elizabeth Fetterhoff of DeLand and Mike Caruso of Delray Beach —- held on after recounts were completed in Volusia and Palm Beach counties.
Caruso led Democrat Jim Bonfiglio by 32 votes —- out of 78,474 votes cast —- following the manual recount.
Fetterhoff ousted incumbent Democrat Patrick Henry of Daytona Beach by 61 votes, out of 61,159 ballots cast.
The weekend also finalized the race for governor, which went into a machine recount but did not meet the standards for a manual recount after Republican Ron DeSantis maintained a 0.4 percent lead over Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
On Saturday, Gillum conceded —- for a second time —- in a Facebook video. The Democrat had initially conceded the night of the election but pressed forward as the gubernatorial race fell within the machine recount mandated by state law.
“Although nobody wanted to be governor more than me, this was not just about an election cycle,” Gillum, accompanied by his wife, R. Jai, said in the video. “This was about creating the kind of change in this state that really allows for the voices of everyday people to show up again in our government, in our state, in our communities.”
In the race to succeed Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Fried first declared victory when she led Caldwell by 5,326 votes after the first unofficial election results were posted on Nov. 10.
After the polls closed on election night four days earlier, Caldwell, 37, had proclaimed himself the winner. Preliminary results had showed the North Fort Myers real-estate appraiser in the lead by about 41,000 votes.
Caldwell’s attorneys claimed in a lawsuit that about 17,000 vote-by-mail ballots were collected and counted in Broward County after the polls were required to close at 7 p.m. on Nov. 6.
Caldwell also attacked Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes for “staggering incompetence” that “threatens the legitimacy of Florida’s elections” after her office was unable to provide the results of a machine recount to the state in time for a 3 p.m. Thursday deadline.
Fried won just 13 of the state’s 67 counties —- Alachua, Broward, Duval, Gadsden, Hillsborough, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Seminole and St. Lucie. But the counties she captured, such as those in South Florida, included some of Florida’s highly populated urban centers.
Fried, who spent $2 million to the nearly $5.5 million spent by Caldwell, drew some attention to the contest by announcing that two national banks —- Wells Fargo and BB&T —- terminated her campaign account because of contributions tied to the marijuana industry. The banking industry has cited federal laws that make the sale and use of marijuana illegal.
Fried, a former student body president at the University of Florida, has advocated moving the state’s regulation of medical marijuana from the Department of Health into the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. She has also said she intends to push for Florida farmers to be able to grow industrial hemp and that she supports smokable medical marijuana.
During the campaign, Caldwell sought to appeal to conservative voters by relying on his pro-gun and anti-tax record in the Legislature and stressing his family’s roots in Florida and ties to the agriculture industry.
Caldwell, endorsed by the NRA, defended the department's handling of concealed-weapons licenses under Putnam after a number of mistakes were found in conducting national background checks. Fried, however, said the state should discuss whether the licensing process should be overseen by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
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