Last Updated: Wednesday, 10:01 a.m.
It was not a good night for Flagler County’s radical, white nationalist Republicans: Joe Mullins, Jill Woolbright and Janet McDonald will no longer be elected officials in the county come November as each was beaten in his or her election bid tonight. Woolbright’s defeat, despite an endorsement by Gov. Ron DeSantis, points to the limits of the governor’s power when put in the service of extremism.
Leann Pennington beat Mullins, the incumbent, one-term county commissioner, in a landslide, winning with 69 percent of the vote. The only other elected official to win an election with anywhere near 70 percent of the vote in recent years is Sheriff Rick Staly, though the comparison may be somewhat off: Pennington was voters’ choice because Mullins had become in every way insupportable.
It is a crushing but unsurprising blow for the most controversial and divisive county commissioner in the county’s 105 years, and the culmination of a tenure fraught with scandals, embarrassments, serial insults of different constituencies, individuals and at least two fellow-commissioners, and finally a campaign acidly informed by lies against Pennington.
Mullins as of this month had poured in $88,000 into the race, most of it his own, and not including political action committee contributions in the tens of thousands of dollars. The PAC money financed a blitz of negative advertising against Pennington in the final weeks of the campaign, much of it lies, such as the lie that she was a Democrat. Pennington is a more moderate Republican than Mullins–most Republicans would be, Mullins’s brand of Republicanism trending more toward white nationalism–but she has been a lifelong Republican. She had raised $24,000 as of mid-August, $7,000 her own but the rest from numerous local contributors–including, notably, $250 from Flagler Beach City Commissioner Eric Cooley, who has frequently and publicly assailed Mullins’s behavior (and been the subject of defamation by Mullins).
“This is a win for Flagler County,” Pennington said this evening. “This shows Flagler County residents really care about our community and really want the best for us in regards to representation.” She had gone to dinner with her husband and son, avoiding anything like a watch party, and was at dinner when her phone began to “blow up” with the news. “It can be done, because it was really grass roots,” she said of her campaign. She was not expecting a congratulatory call from Mullins. He’s not the type. But, she said, “I would like an apology from him–for what I consider to be an ugly campaign on his side.”
Pennington’s win is not just the defeat of Mullins as an individual, but it represents what could be a significant political shift on the commission, even with Jane Gentile-Youd—the candidate Pennington faces in November—in the mix. Pennington’s or Youd’s election would end what until now had been an ironclad bloc represented by Mullins and acolytes Dave Sullivan and Donald O’Brien. The commission is still all white and all Republican, but Pennington–who may be only the third woman elected to the commission in its history (as would be Youd)–and Commissioner Andy Dance represent a more measured, more environmentally minded side of the party. The breakdown now could make Hansen a powerful swing vote on many issues, though with Mullins gone, O’Brien and Sullivan could also rediscover an independence–if not a spine–they had inexplicably surrendered to him.
“I hope that we recognize how beautiful Flagler County is and as we go through this tremendous growth, everybody is conscious about preserving that look and feel that we love about Flagler,” Pennington said. “That’s a big thing for me, I don’t want to lose what we all love about FC. I understand that growth is inevitable but at what cost.”
Mullins did not respond to a text requesting comment, but posted the picture of a rising sun, assuming the picture was shot eastward: he could have been on the West Coast (he travels a lot, as he is fond of advertising on his social media pages), and the picture could have been that of a setting sun, though Mullins was never known for the accuracy of his metaphors, or any kind of accuracy.
The only other County Commission race is that of incumbent Greg Hansen, who was challenged by Janet McDonald and Denise Calderwood. Hansen won re-election, if by a much smaller margin that he would have hoped: with two-thirds of votes counted, he was ahead of Calderwood, 43-24, and well ahead of McDonald, who decided to leave her school board seat by November and attempt to be a commissioner. Since only three Republicans ran, with no Independent or Democrat lined up in November, Hansen’s win equated to a re-election to his second elected term. He was originally appointed to the seat by Gov. Rick Scott in 2017.
McDonald’s bid fell as short as her husband’s two previous attempts, though Dennis McDonald had done better in his two runs, before the McDonald brand was tarnished in a series of self-inflicted embarrassments by both McDonalds: on the school board, McDonald openly espoused Qanon’s conspiracy theories and joined fellow-board member Jill Woolbright in a crusade against books and free expression on campus.
Jill Woolbright was elected to the school board only two years ago but managed in a short time to become nearly as controversial–and just as divisive–as Mullins. She lost to Sally Hunt, 51-49. Hunt was initially ahead by a 10-point margin, but that margin was deceptive: it was not so large that, mathematically, Election Day votes could not turn it around. And the more of those votes were counted, the narrower the margin became, making a Woolbright victory entirely possible. But Woolbright fell short by what she might describe as a satanic margin.
“I am thrilled for our county, I am thrilled for our students and teachers and staff and district,” Hunt said this evening. “This was the vote, this was the outcome that our county really needed, and I just couldn’t be happier.”
Speaking of the past year of ideological tangents by Woolbright, Hunt said: “For somebody to be on a political and religious crusade doesn’t help students learn how to read and doesn’t help students have what they need for the next chapter of their lives when they graduate Flagler County schools. I think the incumbent was incredibly selfish to have disregarded the students and the teachers for her political crusade. I’m so glad Flagler voters decided to vote in support of students and teachers and staff.” Hunt said she looked forward to a new chair of the board who “won’t tolerate going off on tangents.”
Just as remarkably, Trevor Tucker, the three-term school board member, lost to the little known Christy Chong by as large a margin as Hunt was beating Woolbright initially. But as the night wore on, while Hunt’s lead seemed to evaporate, Chong’s held, and grew some: Tucker’s days on the board were nearing their end. Tucker had hardly campaigned, banking on his name.
The third race for the school board, a three-way race between Courtney VandeBunte, lance Alred and Will Furry, was expected to result in a November runoff between the top two vote-getters, with VandeBunte expected to lead the pack. She has. The question was who would come in second. Furry was polling in second place with about three-quarters of votes counted, 14 points behind VandeBunte, with Alred in third, with 22 percent. VandeBunte could have ended the race tonight if she cleared the 50 percent threshold, but that could be out of reach.
One Palm Coast City Council seat was on the ballot, District 2, with four candidates in the running. Theresa Carli Pontieri was ahead, with 37 percent of the vote, with Alan Lowe and Sims Jones for a time trading places for second, the differences in votes between them going back and forth, with each getting roughly 27 percent. In the end Lowe pulled ahead based on today’s heavily Republican turnout. Sims is a Democrat. (It’s a non-partisan race, but not at the ballot box.) Shauna Kanter, who was invisible on the trail, was polling at less than 9 percent.
Turnout was better than any off-year primaries going back to 2004: in 2018, primary turnout was 29.9 in Flagler, and just 19 percent in 2014.
“It was a great day,” Supervisor of Elections Kaiti Lenhart said Wednesday morning in an email. “I’m especially proud of our county for the highest turnout in a Primary election since 2004. We were the 4th highest in the state among medium and large-sized counties. Statewide turnout was only 25.84%.”
On Election Day turnout was especially strong, relative to prior elections, drawing out nearly 9,000 voters and pushing the overall turnout past the 33 percent mark. But it still was well short of the nearly 15,000 voters who cast mail-in ballots. Republicans accounted for 54 percent of the votes, well above their 45 percent proportion of the electorate. Democrats’ share of votes was 34 percent, compared to a 28 percent share of the general electorate.
Independents and members of smaller parties represented barely 12 percent of those who showed up at the polls. It’s not a reflection of disinterest as much as it is of a closed primary state where independents have fewer races in which they could vote, though this year’s ballot included a county commission race, two school board races and, for Palm Coast residents, one Palm Coast City Council race.
In other races, Democrat Val Demings was the runaway choice for Senator in that primary (she will face incumbent Marco Rubio). Charlie Crist was winning the Flagler vote in the Democratic primary for governor, beating Nikki Fried handily, 59-36, for the right to face Ron DeSantis this November. That was not just in one county: Statewide, Crist was winning 60 percent of the vote against Fried’s 35 percent, with 1.2 million votes counted–the lion’s share of Democratic votes statewide–as of 8 p.m. Crist is the winner.
U.S. Rep Michael Waltz was winning his primary handily, though State Sen. Travis Hutson, while expected to win easily, was polling a surprisingly modest 62 percent against Gerry James’s 38 percent.
[This is a developing story. More soon.]
Primary Election 2022 Results: Flagler County's Local Races and State Races
|Flagler School Board, District 1|
|Flagler School Board, District 2|
|Flagler School Board, District 4|
|Palm Coast City Council, District 2|
|Theresa Carli Pontieri||7949||36.76|
|Sims E. Jones||5700||26.36|
|Shauna C. Kanter||1879||8.69|
|Flagler County Commission, District 2, Republican Primary|
|Gregory L. Hansen||12442||44.26|
|Janet O. McDonald||6633||23.59|
|Flagler County Commission, District 4, Republican Primary|
|James W. Shaw||5701||36.51|
|Commissioner of Agriculture, Democratic Primary|
|Naomi Esther Blemur||49.63||51.28|
|State Senator, District 7, Republican Primary|
|Representative in Congress, District 6, Republican Primary|
|Charles E. Davis||3186||19.54|
|United State Senator, Democratic Primary|
|Ricardo De La Fuente||268||2.56|
|Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Democratic Primary|
|Nicole Nikki Fried||3809||36.30|
|Robert L. Willis||236||2.25|
|Attorney General, Democratic Primary|