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'A horrible look': Florida Democrats bash abortion-rights groups for Fried snub

Ruth's List Florida and EMILY's List aren't backing Nikki Fried in the state's primary race for governor against Charlie Crist, who evolved years ago into a Democrat supporting abortion rights.
Nikki Fried, Charlie Crist.
Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist.AP file

MIAMI — When she decided to back Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried for governor, Democratic activist Pamela Goodman made sure to check the website of the abortion-rights group she used to lead because she wanted to borrow its endorsement of the party’s lone statewide elected Democrat.

Goodman couldn’t believe what Ruth’s List Florida said: nothing.

“What? Where is it? What? Why not?” Goodman, an attorney and former president and CEO of Ruth’s List Florida, remembered asking herself earlier this month. “They haven’t endorsed her? I was shocked.”

Ruth's List Florida's mission is to recruit, train and elect “pro-choice” women, but Goodman said it wouldn't discuss what happened with Fried. Nor would Ruth's List Florida tell NBC News why it has so far declined to endorse Fried in the Democratic primary against Rep. Charlie Crist, once a self-described “pro-life” Republican governor who evolved years ago into a Democrat supporting abortion rights.

The group’s national sister organization, EMILY’s List, also wouldn't respond to requests for comment about why it, too, is sitting on the sidelines in the primary. Both groups backed her candidacy in 2018 when she won statewide.

The decision of both groups to stand by in the primary coincides with Crist's success in getting the backing of top abortion-rights women and establishment Democrats, such as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, of Florida, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, his congressional colleagues.

The dynamic has infuriated Fried supporters, and it worries other top Democratic women who decided to stay neutral in the race. They fret about the degree to which women fail to support each other in Democratic races and the impact that has on the party’s ability to credibly argue it’s serious about electing more women supporting abortion rights.

Abortion became a top campaign issue this spring as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade, providing Democrats a focal point for organizing. It also gave Fried a new way to contrast her primary bona fides with Crist’s, namely his 2008 nomination of two conservative Florida Supreme Court justices who are now poised to play a pivotal role in whether to overturn state abortion protections.

“Ruth’s List hear me now,” Fried told the group on May 14 during its “She’s the Change” conference in Orlando, where she bashed Crist’s record. “This is a fight. This is your fight. This is our fight. And I think your choice is clear.”

Sitting in the back of the room: Ruth’s List Florida founder Alex Sink, who started the organization in 2008 and was the state’s elected chief financial officer from 2007 to 2011. She lost her bid for governor in 2010 and was the last statewide elected Democratic woman before Fried won office in 2018. No other Democrat has won the state since 2012.

By the time Fried gave her speech to Ruth's List Florida, Sink had already personally endorsed Crist, a friend and ally of hers from their home region of Tampa Bay. She did not return messages from NBC News seeking comment. Fried's campaign said Ruth's List Florida refused to explain its reasoning.

Wasserman Schultz and Pelosi made sure to vouch for Crist as a defender of reproductive rights in their endorsements. In a statement to NBC News, Wasserman Schultz also mentioned Crist’s electability.

But Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster for Donald Trump who worked for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, predicted DeSantis would be able to dispatch either Fried or Crist in November, but Fried would “probably” be a tougher opponent at the margins, regardless of who wins the Aug. 23 primary.

“If you look at the Roe data, it could help in really close races and given that Charlie’s real position on abortion choice is multiple choice he’s better [as an opponent for DeSantis] than Nikki, who is solidly pro-choice,” Fabrizio said in a text message, echoing DeSantis advisers.

One of Crist’s biggest supporters in Tallahassee is Planned Parenthood’s former senior director in the state, state Rep. Anna Eskamani. A rising Democratic star and progressive leader, Eskamani said Crist earned her endorsement by meeting with her personally and listening to her ideas, and she faulted Fried for her friendship with U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and for being too cozy with power companies. Eskamani also called into question Fried’s commitment to abortion rights.

“When I was in Tallahassee fighting for reproductive rights, as an advocate on the ground, never once did I interact with her or see her because she was not in those same spaces,” Eskamani said, adding that she didn't have any insight into how groups like EMILY’s List or Ruth’s List Florida have approached the primary.

Other Democratic women who support abortion rights were aghast.

“It’s a horrible look, for EMILY’s List, for Ruth’s List, for the movement for women,” said a top Florida Democratic woman who hasn't endorsed in the race. She's supported by Ruth’s List Florida and did not want to publicly shame an ally. “This just f---- our messaging. It’s so dumb. No one understands it.”

Women face higher odds in running against a man for executive office, partly because of an “imagination barrier” in which voters have more trouble picturing a woman as a governor or a mayor because people are accustomed to men holding office, said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has studied how female candidates can overcome and the hurdles they face — even when women run against women. Some of its research was used by Joe Biden’s presidential campaign as it vetted female running mates in 2020.

“Women have to run what we call a campaign belief, so that is convincing donors and thought leaders and other political elites that they are electable and — in addition to winning over voters,” Hunter said. “They also have to spend more time than men convincing donors.”

Former state Sen. Nan Rich experienced this challenge firsthand in 2014 when she ran for governor against Crist, the first time he campaigned for office as a Democrat. Then as now, Crist racked up Democratic establishment support, agitating those who resented party leaders and donors attracted to his “electability.”

Crist won that primary and lost the general election to Gov. Rick Scott, who succeeded Crist in 2010 when Crist left office to unsuccessfully run for U.S. Senate against Marco Rubio, ultimately as an independent. He then successfully won a congressional seat in 2016.

Rich said she’s puzzled that Crist is seen as more “electable” than Fried because he’s lost two statewide races as a Democrat and she won hers in a year when Democrats lost four other races on the ballot. Crist is, however, winning in most polls of the race, and by double digits in some surveys.

Privately, Rich heard criticisms of her “likeability,” her appearance and her voice in 2014, common sexist tropes that critics of Fried have privately whispered about.

“You’re hearing the same thing again. Those are the things that bothered me,” Rich told NBC News, noting that Crist “wouldn’t debate me. Not even once. He gave her one. One debate.”

Still, Rich said she likes Crist as well as Fried and is staying neutral in the primary for now.

“It bothers me that some people who have endorsed him — especially some of the women — have basically endorsed against her,” Rich said. “He’s going against a woman again. I just won’t go against a woman who is very qualified to be governor. And it’s not because she’s a woman. She won a statewide race. She’s highly qualified.”

As for EMILY’s List and Ruth’s List Florida not getting involved, Rich echoed Goodman by saying that “they’re not living up to their values.”

Under fire from Fried during last week’s debate, Crist pointed out that he “vetoed an anti-abortion bill that was sent to me by the Republican Legislature. I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again. And as a member of Congress, I have a 100% rating by Planned Parenthood and NARAL. And that’s why people like Alex Sink have endorsed my campaign.”

He also name-dropped Eskamani and Barbara Zdravecky, a former top Florida Planned Parenthood official.

But Donna Shalala, a former Democratic congresswoman from Miami who is neutral in the race and helped found EMILY’s List in 1985, said she didn't understand why so many people are picking sides in the primary because of the uncomfortable issues about supporting female candidates.

“There’s no discipline in the Democratic Party,” Shalala said, adding that EMILY's List is “strange” about its endorsements. After all, the group endorsed a female candidate in the Democratic primary in Ohio, a redder state than Florida, making the lack of a Fried endorsement more conspicuous in its absence.

As for Ruth's List Florida, she said she's “surprised by that, too. But I don’t know why. I’m a contributor to Ruth’s List. But I haven’t paid much attention to their internal politics.”

EMILY’s List and Ruth’s List Florida endorsed former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham in the 2018 Florida Democratic primary for governor. Fried won her primary and the general election; Graham lost her primary. (Florida’s Democratic Party has a history of clearing the primary field for favored female candidates, such as U.S. Rep. Val Demings in her Senate bid against Rubio this year or Sink in her 2006 CFO race and her unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial bid.)

Shalala cautioned that she wouldn’t “overplay” the import of Crist winning the endorsement of top “pro-choice” women, pointing out that he has deep relationships and worked hard for the support he won. For her part, Shalala had endorsed another candidate in the primary, state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a friend who withdrew last month to run for Shalala’s old congressional seat. She said she’s not endorsing in the primary again.

Another Florida Democrat who has championed abortion rights for years, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, adopted a similar posture.

“I’ve made the judgment not to endorse in the race. I consider both to be friends. Charlie is a colleague, so it would be difficult for me to go against him,” she said. “But on the other hand, I would like to see women have more opportunities.”