On the eve of Tuesday’s midterm election, several hundred Franklin County Republicans gathered Friday evening in a hangar at the Apalachicola Regional Airport to welcome the top of the statewide ticket at a rally led by a rousing appearance by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Democrats took a more low-key approach in the week leading up to the election, with State Sen. Loranne Ausley, fighting to keep her Florida Senate seat, taking part on a bus tour that traveled through Gulf and Franklin counties.
It’s all part of the hoopla that surrounds a statewide election, to help boost the turnout when voters go to the polls throughout the county.
Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley estimates that 60 to 65 percent of the county’s 7,995 registered voters will cast ballots, roughly what it was in the last midterm, when 70 percent of the county’s voters cast ballots.
That 2018 election had a tax collector race on it, won by Rick Watson, who as the most active party Republican among the constitutional officers, worked to boost attendance at the DeSantis event.
When Jimmy Patronis, the incumbent state chief financial officer running for a second term, took the podium Friday to introduce DeSantis, he was wearing a cap given him by Sheriff A.J. Smith, also a Republican.
The third GOP constitutional office holder, Superintendent Steve Lanier, didn’t attend the rally, as it came on the night of Franklin County High School’s Homecoming, sandwiched in between the afternoon parade and the night’s game.
Lanier has been taking a decidedly non-partisan stance in the political battle he is waging, not for his re-election but to secure the passage of two tax levies for the schools. One is the renewal for another four years of a 14-year-old half-mill property tax, set to expire in July 2024. Those monies go entirely for operating costs, most of which are staff salaries.
The other is a brand-new half-cent sales tax, whose monies would go to capital improvements, including priorities of a new bus barn and administration building. Lanier has been arguing the monies raised are needed to prepare the district for the years to come, and that with so much business coming from tourism and out-of-county visitors, their half-penny will go to help educate kids here at home.
On either side of the road to the airport bloomed a long garden of yard signs, touting the four candidates who spoke to the crowd, DeSantis, U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, Patronis and Corey Simon, who is challenging Ausley for the state Senate seat. State Rep. Jason Shoaf also spoke, but he can relax this Tuesday, as no challengers stepped forward in either the primary or general elections.
Those in the crowd Friday night, many wearing red, white and blue, or carrying candidate signs passed out for occasion, got to enjoy a spirited rally of the sort that hasn’t been a part of Franklin County politics for many years.
Republicans have boosted their numbers steadily in the last few years, and now have more than 45 percent of the county’s voters as members, with the Dems enlisting 37 percent support.
Simon, who is making his first bid for public office, was first to speak, right at 5 p.m. A defensive standout for Florida State University’s football team in the 1990s who went on to spend eight years in the NFL, Simon was tapped by DeSantis in 2020 to lead Volunteer Florida, a position he stepped down from when he launched his Senate campaign in June.
Along for Ausley’s bus tour were Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D — Plantation) and State Senator Jason Pizzo (D — Miami Beach), who told reporters at the News Service of Florida that he expects the state senate race to be close.
“In fact, I don’t think Leader Book would disagree with me if I said we think Loranne’s race is going to be within a few hundred votes. We think it’s going to be very tight,” he said.
Next up at the GOP rally was Shoaf, who kept it short, and was the one speaker who reminded the audience of the 2nd Amendment, as gun rights is an issue the Port. St. Joe businessman has strongly advocated for the Legislature.
Dunn spoke at length, explaining how his race against Democrat Al Lawson is a rare case of two incumbent congressmen facing each other. Lawson, a former state senator for District 3 and well-known in Franklin County, has his district reapportioned in a move strongly pushed by DeSantis.
It was Patronis’ role to mix wide-eyed derision of Democrats, just in case any of the party faithful had wandering eyes, with hospitality and good humor, as he introduced his wife and two sons to the crowd as DeSantis’ plane flew in overhead.
DeSantis swept into the hangar, throwing caps to the crowd, to energetic applause. He didn’t pay the celebrity role, with a hi and goodbye, nor did he hurry through his stump speech, which outlined his case as to why his handling of the pandemic, his crackdown on migrants seeking entry through the U.S. southern border, his stance on transgender issues, and his opposition to what he terms Critical Race Theory and so-called “Woke” practices, should be supported by a vote in his favor next week.
“They wanted to say you would lose your job if you declined to get a COVID jab and that was unacceptable for Florida,” he said. “You should not have to choose between a job you need and a shot you don’t want,” citing in particular his opposition to mandatory vaccinations for police officers, firefighters and nurses and to adding COVID vaccinations to other innoculations required of school children.
He spoke of the state’s strong tourism numbers during the pandemic, and how keeping schools open, certainly longer than in many states, led to better test results.
DeSantis made no reference to former President Donald Trump nor to an issue that his challenger, former Republican Governor Charlie Crist who is now running as a Democrat, has hammered away at, that the Florida governor is eyeing running for president in 2024, a task that would command a considerable amount of his attention beginning in the months following this month’s election and continuing on through the Nov. 2024 presidential election.
DeSantis made his case for flying Venezuelan migrants on the state’s dime to Martha’s Vineyard, arguing that it was necessary to bring the issue of border security to the doorsteps of areas less directly affected by the influx of immigrants from Central and South America.
He said his advice to Dunn and his Republican colleagues, after they take the House, is to stand for building a wall and against any lessening of border policies,
“Don’t be giving Biden money,” DeSantis said. “Use your leverage and let’s move the ball here. Use your power to get some results at the border. That’s why we gotta keep the pressure on.”
DeSantis also defended the start, in July, of his election integrity enforcement unit, created after what he called “the most transparent and efficient election of anybody in the country.”
He said his administration had banned “ballot harvesting” in the state, and had required a more thorough cleansing of voter rolls. The first 20 arrests by the unit several weeks ago were seen by election experts as being composed mainly of felons who had been mistakenly given the go-ahead to vote by government officials.
DeSantis cited the case in which charges were brought against a nine-time convicted criminal and illegal alien who had voted in two elections in 2021.
Attending the rally was the Republican in the one county commission race in District 4, Ottice Amison, who is challenging incumbent Joseph A. “Smokey” Parrish, who has held the seat as a Democrat since 2006.
There’s also an election for two non-partisan city commission seats in Carrabelle. A.C. (Tony) Millender is seeking another four-year term, and is vying against three others, Sharon Glaze, Bill Gray, and David Printiss. The other seat had been held by Cal Allen, who decided not to seek re-election. The top two vote getters will be elected, regardless of the percentage they receive. Each of the 951 eligible Carrabelle voters will be able to cast two votes.
Eighty-five voters in Alligator Point, who live outside the water district but are served by the system, will have a choice on their ballots to decide whether they want to be brought into an enlarged district. They would then have to pay that district millage but would have their water needs given the same priority as district residents, including a drop in their water rates would drop.
The only change in the county’s eight precincts are that those in #3 and 4, who used to vote at the Armory, which is undergoing repairs, now must vote at Holy Family Senior Center.
As of Thursday morning, more than 30 percent of the county’s registered voters had already cast votes, about 1,300 of them voting by mail, with 1,156 showing up to vote early. Early voting ends Saturday afternoon at the offices in Apalachicola and Carrabelle.
Leading the numbers of whose who have already voted was Precinct #5 at the Carrabelle Senior Center, with a total of about 575. The Eastpoint firehouse and Apalachicola’s Holy Family both had just under 400 voters already cast ballots.