Florida Governor Ron DeSantis scores big wins in school board races

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MIAMI — Florida Governor Ron DeSantis scored big victories Tuesday night in nearly two dozen school board races where he endorsed conservative candidates supporting his education agenda, underscoring his influence as he uses local races to build its electoral base and present its national platform.

After a harrowing summer of campaigns centering on race, LGBTQ rights, textbooks and even abortion, at least 20 of the 30 school board candidates backed by DeSantis won their races in Tuesday’s primary. The Conservatives say they now have new school board majorities in Miami-Dade, Duval, Sarasota and Brevard counties, potentially reshaping policies for more than half a million students and thousands of teachers.

Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Miami-based Christian Family Coalition, a conservative political advocacy group, compared DeSantis to “a kingmaker” for inspiring voters to the polls — even against well-known incumbents. In Miami-Dade, one of two candidates he backed in two heavily Cuban-American communities ousted a Republican who had served on the county school board for 24 years.

“Just like Trump is doing nationally, DeSantis is doing it in Florida,” Verdugo said, comparing DeSantis to the former president, who wielded political influence in this year’s Republican primaries – with mixed results.

The Republican governor has seized on parental rights as a key part of his message on education as he prepares for a re-election race against U.S. Representative Charlie Crist (D), and potentially a 2024 presidential bid. Florida Democrats said Wednesday the party must quickly figure out how to more effectively challenge DeSantis, who they say is succeeding in building his political brand by turning nonpartisan local races into America’s latest ideological battleground.

“We have to focus on those local races,” said Max Frost, the 25-year-old liberal activist who was elected as the Democratic candidate for a congressional seat in the Orlando area on Tuesday. “DeSantis is someone who worries me more than Trump because if you look at what he’s done here, he’s coming out and fighting for these school board candidates…He’s building power.”

In a sign of how DeSantis is energizing Republicans in Florida, more than 100,000 registered Republicans voted Tuesday over Democrats — even though DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) ran unopposed in the primary.

Yet despite DeSantis’ success in helping some school board candidates, there were also signs that the governor’s platform focused on removing so-called anti-revival ideas from schools is facing resistance in the key pockets of the state.

Joe Saunders, senior political director of Equality Florida, a group that advocates for LGBTQ rights, said more moderate candidates backed by his organization beat candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty, a conservative parenting rights group, in more than two dozen school board races. Saunders said the victories in the Tampa and Orlando areas were a sign that there were limits to the political appeal of conservatives.

“When voters were given a choice between Moms for Liberty extremism and a pro-equality candidate, the majority of voters still chose that pro-equality candidate,” he said.

Some voters, like Jose Perez in Miami, said they were discouraged by DeSantis’ decision to go so heavily in a nonpartisan race for the school board. As the election approached, Perez said he was inundated with negative — and often false — ads including accusing longtime incumbent Marta Perez of DeSantis’ nominee of supporting “transgender ideology.”

“I love DeSantis, but why is he spending so much political capital and money pursuing a fellow Republican?” asked Jose Perez, who wore a “Reagan-Bush” hat and is not related to Marta. “Me and a lot of people are scratching their heads. Why is he doing this?”

In Alachua County, which includes the University of Florida at Gainesville, voters even elected a woman who had been removed from the board by DeSantis a year earlier when reports surfaced that she was living in only 300 feet from the district boundaries. Diyonne McGraw defeated the minister DeSantis appointed to replace her.

“People still do politics, but it’s about the kids,” McGraw said. “It’s also a question of democracy.”

Susan MacManus, a Florida political analyst and professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, said mentions of DeSantis in local races highlight the growing competence of his political organization, offering the campaign a test of his operation. November vote. .

“He’s very savvy about figuring out how to get votes,” MacManus said. “Between the end of early voting and election day, he has these huge press conferences to show his support for the candidates he has selected. At that time, many Republicans had yet to vote, and perhaps they hadn’t paid much attention to the school board races. But suddenly he’s in town saying, “These are my people, we need them.” He is very adept at understanding when to push political issues forward.

The conservative victories, several of which came in counties that have been fiercely competitive in statewide elections, come as Democrats began rallying behind Crist on Wednesday as the Democratic nominee to take on DeSantis.

Minutes after Crist won the nomination, he and DeSantis set the tone for a divisive contest that is expected to deepen political and cultural divisions within the state. The battle over school and health care issues is expected to remain at the forefront of the general election campaign.

“Our state is worth fighting for,” DeSantis told supporters in Miami on Tuesday night. “I call on all Floridians to put on the full armor of God as we fight tooth and nail to protect Florida.”

Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, Crist suggested he doesn’t need or want votes from those who support DeSantis. Crist is expected to shape his platform to counter DeSantis’ notion of ‘freedom’ – arguing that it’s only freedom for some in a state with skyrocketing housing costs and contentious battles over topics such as race and gender identity.

“Those who support the governor should stick with him and vote for him,” Crist said, raising his voice and waving his hand. “I don’t want your vote. If you have that hatred in your heart, keep it there.

In the final days of the campaign, several of the school board races became particularly controversial. In Sarasota, some outside groups have sent letters accusing left-wing candidates of being “Planned Parenthood baby killers” and supporting “pornography in schools.” Candidates endorsed by DeSantis swept three school board races to secure a 4-1 conservative majority. Lisa Schurr, a Sarasota education activist, said Democrats were simply outvoted on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day, there are 150,000 and 100,000 of us,” said Schurr, a Democrat. “We didn’t get the vote, and they had a much better ground game.”

But Bridget Ziegler, an incumbent Sarasota County School Board member who won re-election on Tuesday and helped organize the conservative slate, said the election results are a sign of the growing strength of the parental rights movement. Ziegler, a close political ally of DeSantis, said schools have become too “woke” and parents need to have more control over lesson plans and textbooks.

“That’s how you preserve our republic,” said Ziegler, who also helped start Moms for Liberty. “So I think it’s really important for people across the country to see what happened in Florida, and it will have a ripple effect in many different states where people are already frustrated.”

There was another notable conservative victory in Sarasota on Tuesday night: Voters also elected three candidates to the county’s flagship hospital board who had campaigned as coronavirus vaccine skeptics and certain other science-based medical policies. The victories were a major boost for the growing “medical freedom” movement, which argues that patients should have more control over their medical decisions.

In Miami-Dade, Verdugo of the Christian Family Coalition said conservatives got angry with incumbent Marta Perez in 2021 after she backed an extension of classroom mask policies to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The straw that broke the camel’s back for many Conservatives came last year, he said, after she voted to designate October as “LGBTQ History Month”. Perez did not return calls seeking comment.

“Marta is someone who is more of a Bush Republican, a moderate, and the terrain has changed and times have changed,” Verdugo said.

In Jacksonville, April Carney won a seat on the Duval County School Board after DeSantis endorsed her. Carney was also supported by Moms for Liberty and she appeared on Fox News and Stephen K. Bannon podcasts in the weeks leading up to the election.

Duval County was at the center of school district fights over mask mandates and more recently over how to implement DeSantis’ new parental rights laws. With Carney’s victory, the Conservatives now have a 4-3 majority on the board.

Katie Hathway, a Jacksonville mother who campaigned for Carney’s opponent, said Tuesday’s results left her shaken and worried about the future of public education in Florida.

“I’ve literally been crying since last night,” Hathaway said. “I am more than disappointed. I am also terrified.

Hathaway and others opposed to DeSantis’ favorite school board candidates have created a group in Jacksonville called Public School Defenders to organize against policies they see as harmful, including book bans. She’s also focused on the November election, hoping voters upset by the governor’s interference in local education races will turn out in large numbers for her Democratic challenger.

“I think this election has really opened a lot of people’s eyes,” she said.

Ziegler, meanwhile, said it’s precisely DeSantis’ strong views on polarizing issues like how sex education and racial inequality are taught in the classroom that she says will draw her supporters to the polls in November.

“Ron DeSantis is direct. He addresses the issues he deems important,” Ziegler said. “And he knows what he’s fighting for.”

David Weigel contributed to this report.


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