On the eve of Tuesday’s primary elections, the issues and storylines dominating Florida politics show how much can change in two years.
It’s the first statewide election after a tumultuous 2020 cycle that tested some of the electorate’s faith in American democracy. Conspiracy theories spread by former President Donald Trump about Joe Biden’s victory have made election security a major issue for the GOP base.
Democratic hopefuls, meanwhile, are trying to harness the energy around abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. They will need motivated voters to counteract the political challenges posed by President Biden, whose approval ratings are stuck in the low 40s.
Both parties will try to convince voters they have the solution to inflation and other economic issues, which polls show are top political concerns.
In some ways, the primary election, in which parties will decide their candidates for the Nov. 8 general election, is just a warm-up.
But there’s still plenty at stake. Some races — including for many judicial and school board seats — will be decided Tuesday. Plus, we’ll get clarity on some other key questions.
Who will the Democrats pick to take on DeSantis?
In the race that’s sure to draw the most national attention, Democrats decide who will face DeSantis in 11 weeks. (DeSantis is not on the ballot this Tuesday because no other Republican challenged him and his $135 million war chest.)
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried are each making the case that they can defeat the popular incumbent.
Crist, like Biden in 2020, is running on restoring a sense of decency to Florida leadership.
Fried, meanwhile, argues voters should trust her to fight for issues such as access to abortion because she’s the only true Democrat in the race. (Crist, who served as governor from 2007-2011, was previously a Republican and an independent.)
Whoever the Democrats choose will have to take on a rising GOP star in DeSantis. But he or she also will have to battle the weight of recent history: Democrats have been largely powerless in the Sunshine State over the last quarter century.
New election laws get a test
In the primary, a series of new election laws pushed by Republican leaders will change how Florida votes. In 2021, despite the objections of voting rights groups, DeSantis signed Senate Bill 90 into law, which put restrictions on voting by mail. For instance, voters must now provide additional identification when they request their ballots.
This year, DeSantis pushed for further measures, including the addition of what’s believed to be a first-of-its-kind, 25-person Office of Election Crimes and Security. That team, which operates under DeSantis’ executive branch, investigates voter fraud and reports findings to the governor and Legislature. On Thursday, DeSantis announced the unit had made its first series of voter fraud-related arrests.
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Confidence in the election system
The 2022 elections, starting with the primary, come with high stakes for election confidence, said Mark Earley, Leon County’s supervisor of elections.
Trump’s unfounded conspiracy theories about his defeat in the 2020 presidential election have shaken many Americans’ trust in elections systems, polls have shown.
“The elections of 2022 have the ability to demonstrate — and I won’t say prove, because prove is in the eye of the beholder — that Florida elections can be trusted,” said Earley, who is the president of the statewide Florida Supervisors of Elections group.
How will DeSantis-endorsed candidates fare?
Although DeSantis isn’t on the primary ballot, he’ll get tested. The governor, who has made schools a major part of his policy agenda, has endorsed 30 candidates in local school board races across the state.
Among his picks: Al Hernandez in Pasco County; Patricia Rendon, Alysha Legge and Stacy Hahn in Hillsborough; and Roberto Alonso and Monica Colucci in Miami-Dade.
“Parental rights, curriculum transparency, and classrooms free of woke ideology are all on the ballot this election, and it starts with school board elections,” DeSantis said of his picks.
We may not know the results of all of those races Tuesday. Hernandez, Rendon, Legge and Alonso each have more than one opponent. Candidates in nonpartisan races — school board, circuit judge, etc. — have to get a majority of primary votes to clinch the race. Otherwise, the top two go into a general election runoff.
But if DeSantis’ candidates have a strong showing in these nonpartisan races, it will help illustrate how powerful his sway over Florida politics has become — and how voters are responding to his views on parental choice and curriculum. If they lose or fail to make the general election, the results could be a rebuke of DeSantis’ education agenda.
Who will face Marco Rubio?
Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings is all over Florida’s airwaves with her eye on a general election matchup against U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
A committee supporting Demings has raised a staggering $47.8 million — and she may need every cent against Rubio, who holds the advantages of incumbency and widespread name recognition.
But first, Demings will have to get through Tuesday’s primary. She’s facing Miami immigration attorney William Sanchez, clean-energy entrepreneur Ricardo De La Fuente and Tampa attorney and former state Rep. Brian Rush.
Demings’ primary opponents haven’t raised much money and have struggled to break through with their respective messages. A recent poll commissioned by the University of North Florida showed Demings with a commanding 76-point lead over her opponents.
Sanchez said he can be competitive with Rubio for Hispanic votes, while De La Fuente has positioned himself as a unifying candidate. Rush is running to shore up the U.S. government’s finances.
Rubio’s Senate seat could prove pivotal in a year when control of the entire 100-person chamber is at stake.
The fate of the local Republican Party in Congress
With Crist entering the governor’s race and the Florida congressional maps newly redrawn, the Tampa Bay region is home to two open congressional seats: District 13, which covers most of Pinellas County, and District 15, which spans parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk.
Democrats hope to win both seats, but much of the primary drama will play out among Republicans.
In District 13, the Trump-endorsed Anna Paulina Luna will try to reclaim the GOP nomination she won two years ago before she lost to Crist in the general election.
To do so, she must defeat attorney Amanda Makki, whom she beat in the 2020 primary; Christine Quinn, who previously challenged U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor for her Tampa congressional seat; Moneer Kheireddine, a Stetson University law student; and attorney Kevin Hayslett. The winner will need just a plurality of votes to advance.
In District 15, five Republicans are squaring off to claim the nomination for a district in which Trump beat Biden by four points in 2020.
Election security has become a major issue in the race: Laurel Lee, who served as Florida secretary of state under DeSantis during the 2020 elections, has gotten heat from at least one opponent for not allowing a “forensic audit” of the results. (State law requires election results to be audited by county elections supervisors.)
Lee will face state Sen. Kelli Stargel, state Rep. Jackie Toledo, and Navy veterans Demetries Grimes and Kevin “Mac” McGovern. This race, perhaps more than any other, will give insight into how local GOP voters view Florida elections.
The future of local school funding
Hillsborough and Pasco voters will decide Tuesday whether to approve additional property taxes to fund local schools. (Pinellas and Hernando have similar taxes.) Hillsborough has estimated its tax of $1 for every $1,000 of assessed home value would bring some $146 million per year to county public and charter schools. Pasco’s proposal, which is for up to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed home value, would bring in some $37 million, officials estimate.
The referendums come amid a statewide teacher shortage. Both taxes would be used by the school districts to attract and retain staff, including teachers. Both would expire at the end of June 2027.
But with property taxes increasing rapidly across Tampa Bay due to skyrocketing property values, the measures have been met with skepticism by some.
Democratic Party down-ballot intrigue
In a few high-profile legislative primaries across the state, Democrats are at each other’s throats.
In South Florida’s House District 109, state Rep. James Bush III, an Opa-locka Democrat, is getting a primary challenge from attorney Ashley Gantt. Some high-profile legislative Democrats are supporting Gantt over Bush because of Bush’s votes with Republicans on high-profile social issues such as abortion restrictions.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, a supporter of Gantt’s, went so far as to tell Politico this month that Bush has acted like “the governor’s little bitch” in the Legislature.
Bush scheduled a news conference Tuesday to voice displeasure over Pizzo’s comments, saying they reminded him of the Jim Crow era.
In attendance at that news conference was Barbara Sharief, the former Broward county mayor, who wants to unseat Sen. Lauren Book, the Democratic leader. If she’s successful, Democrats will be forced to find a new Senate leader — the party’s third in less than two years.
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