Florida’s primary election a referendum on DeSantis after governor gets heavily involved

Tallahassee Democrat | By Zac Anderson, USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA | Updated August 23, 2022

Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t on the Aug. 23 primary ballot, but many of his endorsed candidates are, and he’s taking significant steps to help them, making the election partly a referendum on Florida’s chief executive.

Former President Donald Trump has worked to transform the political landscape and build a loyal bench of supporters by endorsing in a wide range of races and traveling the country to boost those candidates.

DeSantis is emulating that strategy in Florida. He has endorsed in at least 34 races and, like Trump, is following through with campaign help for his preferred candidates, including holding rallies for them, paying for advertising and donating directly to their campaigns.

Florida's Aug. 23 primary is partly a referendum on Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has endorsed in a number of down ballot races. His political committee even paid for this mailer and others supporting school board candidates.
Florida’s Aug. 23 primary is partly a referendum on Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has endorsed in a number of down ballot races. His political committee even paid for this mailer and others supporting school board candidates. Political Advertisement

DeSantis’ involvement in Florida primary unusual

The governor’s heavy involvement in the August primary is unusual for Florida. It shows how DeSantis is eager to use his power and popularity within the GOP to reshape Florida politics at all levels.

That could make it easier for him to advance his agenda, particularly on education issues, where he has been especially active in the primary. It also carries the risk of rejection, though, with DeSantis appearing more vulnerable if voters rebuff his candidates after he spent so much energy campaigning for them. 

“This governor is extremely popular with the grassroots and rank-and-file Republicans and those primary voters look for his opinion on people to vote for,” said Leon County GOP Chair and Florida GOP chairman of chairs Evan Power. “I think he’s used that power to push for active conservatives who share his view of Florida. It’s something Republicans have wanted for a long time, Republicans who are willing to fight for a conservative agenda.”

DeSantis’ is doing a lot to help his preferred candidates.

The governor wrote $1,000 checks from his political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, to county school board candidates he backed this year, and also is paying for mailers in their races.

At least three mailers paid for by Friends of Ron DeSantis have gone out to help his endorsed school board candidates in some counties. They encourage voters to “stand with Governor DeSantis on August 23rd.”

Focus on school board races

DeSantis also is touring the state to support school board candidates, with rallies in Miami, Jacksonville, Sarasota and Ormond Beach.

Florida school board races aren’t typical primaries because they technically are nonpartisan. A candidate’s party affiliation doesn’t even appear on the ballot.

The 30 school board candidates DeSantis is backing are conservatives who, in many cases, are running against more liberal opponents. DeSantis’ involvement could boost GOP turnout in the primary, which many voters overlook. Turnout is typically between 20% and 30%.

Friends of Ron DeSantis, the political committee backing Gov. Ron DeSantis' reelection bid, paid for this mailer supporting three Sarasota County School Board candidates endorsed by DeSantis, who are among 29 school board candidates the governor endorsed statewide.
Friends of Ron DeSantis, the political committee backing Ron DeSantis’ reelection bid, paid for this mailer supporting three Sarasota County School Board candidates endorsed by DeSantis, who are among 29 school board candidates the Governor endorsed statewide. Political Advertisement

Unlike Trump’s efforts to reshape the GOP, DeSantis’ focus on school board contests is more about pushing his conservative education agenda, which has included legislation limiting how race, gender and sexual orientation are discussed in schools.

“I think there are two ways to look at it,” said Saint Leo University political science professor Frank Orlando. “One is from the strategic angle of investing in allies that will be beholden to him in case of a possible 2024 run, especially if he runs up against President Trump.”

Orlando added: “The other way to look at it is that he has genuine convictions about the education reforms that he has pushed beyond just electoral posturing. If this is the case, then there’s no better way to do that than on the local level.”

A mailer sent to Sarasota County voters says his school board candidates “will support the DeSantis Education Agenda” and “Stop indoctrination.”

“It just shows that he recognizes strong leadership and the need for strong leadership in the most important race in 2022, which is the school board,” said Aly Marie Legge, a conservative Hillsborough County School Board candidate endorsed by DeSantis.

Endorsements, support in Republican primaries

The governor also has been active in traditional Republican primaries. In many cases, his endorsement of a GOP candidate was enough to ward off serious challengers.

State Sen. Wilton Simpson is running for Agriculture Commissioner with token GOP opposition after both DeSantis and Trump backed him.

State Senate candidates Blaise Ingoglia in Pasco County and Jonathan Martin in Lee County didn’t attract any Republican opposition — and are almost certain to win their races in heavily Republican areas — after DeSantis endorsed them.

In some cases, DeSantis is getting involved in competitive GOP primaries, both by endorsing and offering financial support.

The governor’s political committee gave $50,000 to Friends of Kiyan Michael, the political committee supporting Michael, a Jacksonville Republican, in a state House primary against two other Republicans. DeSantis endorsed Michael.

Even in races where DeSantis hasn’t endorsed, he is playing a big role in the GOP primaries. Many GOP candidates have touted their support for DeSantis’ agenda, showing how popular he is within the party.

These include candidates for Congress down to local offices. Republican county commission candidate Mark Smith mentions DeSantis twice in his latest mailer, saying: “Just like Governor DeSantis, we can count on Mark to protect our freedoms and liberty from government mandates and overreach.”

Smith is running for the Sarasota County Commission against another Republican in a tightly contested race.

Candidates have run afoul of DeSantis for touting his support when he hasn’t offered it.

Last month, a lawyer for the DeSantis campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to a Miami-based political committee backing Marta Perez, who is running as an incumbent for reelection to a seat on the powerful nine-member Miami-Dade County School Board. DeSantis had endorsed another candidate who had worked in his administration.

The political committee featured mailer ads that included a photo of her side-by-side with DeSantis and a smaller photo of DeSantis gesturing with a thumbs up.

DeSantis puts money where mouth is 

When DeSantis does back a candidate, he has offered significant financial support.

The governor’s political committee gave $140,000 to the Jobs and Prosperity for Florida political committee, which is chaired by his lieutenant governor Jeanette Núñez. That committee has paid more than $200,000 to a consulting firm working for two Miami-Dade County School Board candidates endorsed by DeSantis, one of whom used to work for Núñez.

It’s unusual for someone like DeSantis who has a competitive reelection race to spend a considerable amount of his own campaign money helping other candidates. The governor’s extraordinary fundraising is allowing him to be generous with those funds. His political committee has more than $125 million in cash on hand.

“I don’t recall a governor of any state going as ‘local’ as Governor DeSantis has” with his endorsements and campaign support, Saint Leo’sOrlando said. “Not just in Florida, but nationwide, but… he really has money to burn.”

Legge has benefited from mailers paid for by DeSantis’ political committee.

“It’s a good help,” she said. “We appreciate it.”

Legge is a 35-year-old mother who has attended most Hillsborough School Board meetings over the past three years, complaining about COVID-19 policies and other issues. She is involved with Moms for America, a conservative activist group based in Missouri.

She first met DeSantis when she spoke at a press conference the governor held to sign legislation on how racial issues are taught in schools. 

“It really should just be back to basics education, we shouldn’t have these divisive topics where we’re pitting children against each other,” Legge said.

Not only is DeSantis bringing more attention to school board races, but he also is amping up the partisanship around these contests.

While school board contests are nonpartisan, the Republican and Democratic parties always have worked on these races behind the scenes in Florida. Party involvement this year is much more overt, though, and having the state’s top GOP official heavily focused on the races takes it to another level.

Republicans say they are just trying to match what Democrats have been doing for years in targeting school races. Some of the candidates running against DeSantis-backed opponents say the partisanship around school issues has become too intense and needs to be dialed back.

“I am not running for office to achieve a partisan or ideological outcome,” said Sarasota County School Board candidate Lauren Kurnov, who is running against a DeSantis-endorsed candidate. “I’m running to get politics out of the classroom so our kids, teachers, and parents can focus on what’s best for our students instead of what’s best for someone’s political career.” 

Herald-Tribune education writer Steven Walker contributed to this report.

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