Democrats recruit candidates for all state House, Senate races
For the first time in at least 20 years, it would appear Florida Democrats are going to field candidates in all 140 state legislative races.
Among recent filers are challengers to powerful Republican incumbents Sen. Travis Hutson of St. Augustine and Rep. Tom Leek of Ormond Beach.
Hutson, who chairs an appropriations subcommittee on transportation, tourism and economic development, will be on the ballot opposite Heather Hunter, a 22-year-old recent Flagler College graduate who interned with the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida and lives in Tallahassee.
And in Florida House District 25 — where Leek is completing his second two-year term as chair of the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee — Libertarian Joe Hannoush will be joined on the ballot by Sarah Zutter, 22, of Port Orange. She is a recent graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who’s been politically active since 2016.
Neither Hunter nor Zutter has reported raising any money, other than to pay a qualifying fee of about $1,800. Qualifying for most state and local candidates is next week.
That can’t compete with Hutson and Leek, each of whom had at least $140,000 in cash on hand, according to their most recent campaign finance reports, and that’s not including money in their political committees.
Since April 1, Janelle Christensen, president of the Democratic Environmental Caucus, led the effort to recruit 33 candidates for state legislative races that had not yet involved a Democrat.
“I think that the party feels that Democratic ideas need to be voiced in every corner of the state,” Christensen said. “If we had those 33 seats vacant, that’s nearly one-third of the state where we are not raising the issues the Democratic Party stands for.”
Despite Florida being a state that has more registered Democrats than Republicans, the GOP has controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office for more than 20 years.
Christensen said she partnered with Dr. William “Fergie” Reid, who in 1967 became the first African-American to be elected to the Virginia Assembly since the Reconstruction, and his son, Dr. William “Fergie” Reid Jr., to get candidates for every seat in that state’s election. Democrats won the Virginia House in 2019, giving them control of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time since 1994.
Not all the candidates are newbies like Hunter and Zutter.
“We have a really wide mix. I would say that most of them are involved in the environmental caucus,” Christensen said. “There are a lot of veterans running and there are some retirees.”
She acknowledged that many of the 33 are in safe-red districts.
“Maybe they know this is a long shot, but they’re building up their name and their experience in the local committees,” Christensen said. “These are some people who took on tough races because they do have ambitions in the future.”
It’s going to take changes to raise Democrats’ prospects in Florida, which has been redistricted twice by Republicans, and will be again in 2021, following the release of this year’s census.
Greg Koger, professor and chair of political science at the University of Miami, said the effort to recruit candidates makes sense for two reasons.
“Some incumbents are weaker than might be expected,” Koger said, “and long-shot victories can happen.”
Also, it means candidates such as Hutson and Leek will have to use more of their resources.
“It forces every incumbent to defend himself or herself. The focus will be on their own races,” Koger said. “They won’t be raising money and reallocating it to other races that are considered close.”
Hunter was born in Daytona Beach and says she will — as the law requires — move back to the area if she wins. She campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and local candidates in 2018.
She’s particularly concerned with criminal justice reform and protecting Florida’s environment.
“We don’t believe anybody should just be able to walk into office,” Hunter said. “We think we can win. This year has been very crazy and you never know what’s going to happen.”
Hutson said he doesn’t know much about Hunter, but says he takes the challenge seriously.
“I think were going to campaign and not take anything lightly or for granted,” he said. “Obviously our numbers in (2016), we did really well, but in the last few years a lot of people have moved into the district. ... We are going to be running as if it’s the first time we ran.”
Zutter, who also worked for the Clinton campaign and organized a women’s march in Daytona Beach in 2019, was an intern for former Sen. Bill Nelson in Orlando in 2018. She was also president of Embry-Riddle’s chapter of the Florida College Democrats.
“I just think I’m able to talk to voters directly,” Zutter said. “I’m fighting for them and want to represent them as their direct representative, which is something that crosses party lines and resonates with people.”
Leek said he welcomes the challenge.
“I love to see people at that age getting involved,” Leek said. “(My 2018 opponent) Katie Tripp was a great opponent. She made me a better candidate.”
Koger said the experience of running for office at a young age, even in a losing battle, can be useful for candidates such as Hunter and Zutter.
“The experience of running for (office) is something they can use in their later lives,” Koger said. “Even if they lose an election, the Democrats can see people who did better than expected.”
Beyond that, Christensen believes fielding candidates statewide sends a strong message.
When she first moved to largely Republican Lee County, she said she learned that a lot of Democrats there had registered with the GOP just to “have a voice” in local politics.
An effort to recruit more candidates in 2018 increased Democratic turnout by 3%, she said.
“There were people to vote for down ballot,” she said. “We have to do everything we can to let every Floridian know they have a choice.”
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.