Here’s a sentence not heard in a couple of decades of elections in a congressional district that includes Flagler County: a Democratic candidate–Nancy Soderberg–is the frontrunner. By far.
It may be a result of circumstances, with incumbent Ron DeSantis a few weeks ago deciding to run for governor instead, Republicans not yet gearing up to fill the vacuum, and other Democrats again showing the thinness of their bench in a scarlet region where they’ve been decimated in the past several election cycles.
But it isn’t just circumstances: after only two fund-raising cycles and before the start of 2018, Soderberg has raised more than half a million dollars. DeSantis in 2014 raised a total of $1.1 million. His Democratic opponent raised less than $40,000. DeSantis’s last relatively earnest opponent, Heather Beaven, raised only $281,000 in the entire 2012 election cycle (to DeSantis’s $1.1 million), only a little more than she’d raised when she ran against John Mica in 2010 (who raised $1.2 million). Soderberg’s total so far, with 10 months to go, exceeds Beaven’s combined total for both her election runs.
By any measure, including what has been a seemingly insurmountable Republican money machine in the district, Soderberg is a serious, well-funded candidate. The majority of that money is from outside the district. But that was the case with DeSantis as well.
Campaign press releases are routinely thick with hyperbole. But the release Soderberg’s campaign issued Tuesday is accurate: “The total Soderberg raised makes her the most competitive Democrat in recent history, demonstrating the determination of Democrats to win this seat.”
So far seven other candidates have announced for the congressional seat: Democrats Bob Coffman, Stephen Sevigny and John Upchurch, and Republicans Fred Costello, Robert Jones, Jeremy Kelly and John Ward. None of them has any fund-raising to speak of, and most have not even filed fund-raising reports so far. Of course that will change. But head starts in congressional elections can translate into a difference of the few percentage points that can make a difference.
Costello, a former mayor of Ormond Beach and former state legislator, was one of the seven Republicans who ran in the Republican primary against DeSantis in 2012. He came in a distant second, with 23 percent of the vote to DeSantis’s 39 percent. Costello had raised a total of $301,000. That was the last time the district had an open seat, as it does again now.
On Jan. 18, the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, a closely-followed and non-partisan electoral analyst who maintains a rating system for federal and gubernatorial races across the nation, changed the rating for the 6th Congressional District from “Safe Republican” to “Leans Republican.” That was within days of DeSantis’s announcement that he was running for governor. (Sabato also considers the race for Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat, likely to draw Gov. Rick Scott as Nelson’s challenger, a toss-up, changing it in mid-November from “Leans Democratic”). Soderberg’s campaign pointed out Sabato’s rating change with the campaign-finance announcement.
The 6th Congressional District includes all of Flagler, a southern slice of St. Johns and a northern portion of Volusia. Redistricting two years ago cut out the Putnam portion that had been part of the district, helping to moderate it somewhat from its solidly red demographics. But Flagler’s electoral profile has continued to trend rightward, steeply so since 2008, reversing a 38-36 percent Democratic advantage in voter registrations to a 41-31 percent advantage for Republicans today. Democrats are skirting dangerously close to losing second place to independents, who account for 28 percent of the rolls, up from 21 percent in 2008.
Soderberg is a former top foreign policy aide in the Clinton administration and briefly the ambassador to the United Nations (Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s groundbreaking secretary of state, is one of Soderberg’s most generous individual donors). Last week she announced endorsements from Democratic officials in Volusia County, including State Rep. Patrick Henry, Volusia County Council member Joyce Cusack, and Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry.
There are slimmer Democratic pickings among Flagler’s elected officials: Flagler Beach City Commissioner Jane Mealy and School Board member Colleen Conklin are it. And Conklin’s commitment to the Democratic Party waffled last year: though she won reelection with her usual wide margin in the 2016 primary, she spoke as if shell-shocked by the general election, which swept out of office every Democrat on the ballot, including long-standing veterans like Barbara Revels on the county commission and Jason DeLorenzo, who was trying to make the move from Palm Coast City Council to the county commission.
Soderberg approached neither Conklin nor Mealy for an endorsement, they said. Conklin said she was “unsure” if she would endorse Soderberg. “I don’t endorse anyone based on party, rather on merit, issue positions and value they bring to constituents,” she said.
Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission, has had one conversation with Soderberg. It was at last December’s Christmas parade in Flagler Beach. “She said ‘I really want to get together with you and see what the issues are here,'” Mealy said, citing Soderberg’s words. “I thought that was a great thing because our current congressman couldn’t care less. But she never did.” Mealy was at the time impressed by another detail: that Soderberg was willing to walk the line in the parade and meet with people directly rather than sit back in a car and roll by, waving hands. As for endorsing her, Mealy, who’s uncomfortable with endorsing anyone, said she’d have to think about it and learn more about Soderberg and other candidates on the issues.
If there’s a dearth of Democrats in office, the somnolence of Democrats in the ranks has diminished, replaced by the more in-your-face style of local Palm Coast Democratic Club President Mike Cocchiola. “We are not going to let Republicans walk away as they have been doing in this darn community. Not again. Not ever. We’re going after them,” Cocchiola said at a meeting of the club last November, moments before introducing Soderberg (it was one of her still-rare local appearances). “Look, if nothing else rallies the Democratic Party in this town, it is ‘Beat Ron DeSantis.’ He needs to go. Whether he runs for his own seat or runs for something else, it doesn’t matter. We need to put a Democrat in that seat, and wherever Ron DeSantis goes, we need to follow him and crush him like a bug.”
Then he introduced Soderberg.
“I believe that I can run and win this seat, and when I do the House of Representatives will turn blue,” Soderberg said shortly afterward, “and we’ll begin to force a conversation in Washington where you reach across the other side, work with the other moderates.” She elaborated moments later: “We need to shift the conversation from the extremes on the left and the right that that sort of are screaming at each other and say, how can we actually get things done? As I said before I’ve spent a lot of time trying to negotiate tough problems on peace and terrorism, I know how to get things done and see the possibilities for peace.” She was not exaggerating: Soderberg played a key role in crafting the peace agreement that ended the low-grade civil war in Northern Ireland.
Congressional District 6 Candidates' Finances, As of Dec. 31, 2017
|Robert Coffman (D)|
|Fred Costello (R)|
|Robert Jones (R)|
|Jeremy Kelly (R)|
|Stephen Sevigny (D)|
|Nancy Soderberg (D)|
|John Ward (R)|