Matt Caldwell pulls down his cowboy hat and hoists a shotgun to his shoulder.
“Put it on live, lean into it and try shooting off into the distance,” he says. “It’s going to happen fast.”
It was a hot September day on a private ranch in Monticello, Florida, and the candidate for commissioner of agriculture and consumer services was spending the afternoon shooting before guests arrived for a fundraiser benefiting the Republican ticket.
He picked up the gun and had his campaign staff launch another round of orange clays on a skeet shooting range — an almost identical scene to one portrayed in an early Caldwell campaign ad.
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“People seem to connect with it,” the state representative from Fort Myers said. “It’s a very traditional thing to do, to enjoy shooting sports.”
After the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and the political fallout during the 2018 legislative session, it was widely believed that gun safety would emerge as a hot-button issue in this midterm election. But in many ways it has faded into the background of the biggest races, falling behind topics like red tide, immigration and restoration of felons’ voting rights.
Where it is apparent, however, is in a race less watched: the race for commissioner of agriculture and consumer services between Caldwell and Broward County attorney Nikki Fried.
Fried, a Democrat who is endorsed by Everytown for Gun Safety, is not totally set apart from the gun issue. She owns a gun, holds a concealed weapons permit, and does not shy away from discussing it in debates and interviews.
She’s made it clear that she doesn’t want to stand in the way of people who seek out concealed weapons permits but intends to implement new procedures and safeguards in the department.
That department attracted unwanted attention earlier this year when it was found out that, for 13 months, the department stopped using results from an FBI crime database that ensures that those who apply to openly carry a gun in public do not have a disqualifying history in other states. The employee in charge of the program was unable to log into the system, and the problem went unresolved for more than a year.
But before Commissioner Adam Putnam was slammed for the breach, many Floridians didn’t even know that the agriculture commissioner oversaw that process. Now as the candidates vie to replace Putnam in the statewide office, they’ve been forced to take a stance on handling the department while appealing to the ideology of their respective voter bases — one that treasures the Second Amendment, and the other that calls for more gun control.
Caldwell is popular with gun lovers and gun institutions alike, and he has seized on the reputation. A mailer that went out a week before the primary shows photos of Caldwell shooting a gun, shaking hands in a cowboy hat and appearing on CNN after he voted no on a bill to debate assault weapons.
Even after notably voting against the party on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act which, among other things, approved a three-day waiting period and raised the gun purchasing age to 21, he gained the National Rifle Association’s first endorsement of this election cycle. Caldwell also maintains an A+ rating by the organization.
Just last week, the NRA spent $929,000 on campaign advertising in the state, although not all those funds go directly to supporting Caldwell.
Everytown is also investing in its chosen candidates. The group announced last week it was putting an additional $1.8 million behind Fried and the Democratic candidate for attorney general, Sean Shaw.
NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer sent a statement to members critiquing Fried’s Everytown endorsement earlier this month, labeling her as an “anti-gun extremist who will eliminate our freedoms.”
“Fried opposes your Second Amendment right to self-defense,” Hammer wrote. “If Fried gets elected, she will do everything she can to eliminate our gun rights. That is the plain truth.”
After a Tampa Bay Times report revealed emails between Hammer and officials within the agriculture commissioner’s office, Fried sent a letter to Hammer and posted a video calling out to Caldwell.
“Employees of the Department will work for the people of Florida,” Fried wrote in the letter. “Neither the Department, nor its employees will carry out the interests of the NRA, or any outside group that seeks to unduly influence the rules that apply to them.”
Her campaign has taken jabs at Caldwell’s stance on guns, calling him “dismissive” of background check problems and someone who “can’t be trusted.”
In their only televised debate, Caldwell argued that his close relationship to the NRA does not make him unfit for the job.
Fried called his attitude toward guns “irresponsible,” and suggested moving oversight of the permitting process to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement instead.
Even voters this election cycle have taken a harder look at the role of guns in the agriculture commissioner race. Some say an NRA endorsement makes a perfect candidate. Others say it breaks one.
Wendy Vogeley, 53, of Palm City, has never voted in a midterm election before, but the mother of four became involved with her local chapter of Everytown’s Moms Demand Action after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Vogeley says Caldwell’s relationship with the NRA is a deal-breaker.
“I feel like he’s one of them,” she said. “He’s not independent, he’s not objective. He does not have our best interest at heart. It’s a no-brainer.”
In her experience volunteering with Moms Demand, she said, people underestimate the importance of the agriculture commissioner when they get to the polls.
“People don’t know who they are voting for,” she said. “It’s not like being a governor, and it probably gets pushed under the rug.”
Graham Glover, an Army chaplain based in Virginia, said after the breach in the concealed weapons permitting system it’s “natural that guns are an issue” this year.
Glover, 44, votes in Alachua County, and says people should have comprehensive and robust background checks before expressing their Second Amendment rights, just like his fellow soldiers have to do.
He supports Fried, who he’s known since they were students at the University of Florida, because she “speaks truth to power.”
“She has ideas of a comprehensive and robust background check,” he said. “She is trying to suggest that we do it in a safe way.”
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey — who described himself as the “Second Amendment sheriff” — said no matter who comes to see him, one of the first questions he asks a candidate is where they stand on the Second Amendment.
In this race especially, he said, guns are more important because of the commissioner’s responsibility for the concealed weapons permitting process.
“In Brevard County, we have an overwhelming number of people who are concealed carry permit holders,” said Ivey. “In our community, they want somebody who is going to stand up for their rights.”
Ivey, who endorsed Caldwell early on, said he was sold by the NRA endorsement and his experience as a state representative.
He said he thinks Caldwell will stand up for the Second Amendment “even when it’s not popular to do so,” and look at things from a “logical perspective.”
But he added that no matter what, there will be voters who are unhappy after Election Day is through.
“The topic,” the sheriff said, “is generally polarizing to everyone.”