In Special Election for House and Senate Seats, GOP Candidates Declare, Trevor Tucker Mulls a Run and Democrats Are Absent
It didn’t take long for Republican candidates to declare their candidacy for a Senate seat and two House seats that have opened as a result of Sen. John Thrasher’s resignation last week. Then again, they have little time to make their case before voters who, just rid of an election, are more inclined to shop, eat and drink over the next two months than pay heed to more politicians’ panders.
As soon as Gov. Rick Scott called for the special elections–Jan. 27 for the primary, April 7 for the general—Hutson resigned his seat to run for Senate (his resignation letter is post-dated to the day of the election), as did St. Johns’ three-term Republican House member Doc Renuart. The two men are expected to be the front runners for the Senate seat. Renuart has more experience. Hutson, a freshman House member, has more money: he goes into the race already stashing $186,000 in his campaign account, with more expected. Renuart is closer to $50,000 at this point, most of it a loan to himself.
Derek Hankerson, the tea party darling who challenged Thrasher in the GOP primary in August and lost badly (Thrasher beat him with 70 percent of the vote) will not run for that Senate seat. “My plans are to drop down and run for the state House seat since Travis Hutson is planning to run for the state Senate,” Hankerson said Tuesday, as he celebrated his 50th birthday. Hankerson is the first announced Sr. Johns County candidate for that House seat. Paul Renner, the Jacksonville lawyer, has been looking at property in Flagler and may be another Republican candidate for the House seat. Renner lost the Republican primary for a House seat in District 15 in Jacksonville by three votes in August (to Jay Fant).
One Flagler County candidate has announced: Dave Sullivan, the Flagler County Republican Executive Committee chairman, who had lunch with Renner today (“nice guy,” Sullivan said). Trevor Tucker, the two-time winner of a Flagler County School Board seat, said Tuesday he was thinking about running—and would likely run, either if Sullivan chose not to run or asked him to run.
“If he would want me to run I would probably really, really consider it and probably end up doing it then. But I don’t want to split the vote in Flagler, and that’s what you end up doing,” Tucker said, stressing that his intention is to maximize Flagler’s chance of having its own representative. “If Dave Sullivan is running, I probably will not.”
Last week, when Sullivan first made public his intention to run, he was conditional: “If nobody else was going to challenge me in Flagler County, I’ll do it,” Sullivan said then. On Tuesday, he had made up his mind to run regardless. “My feeling is either you’re in or you’re out. I’m not afraid of going forward,” he said, after hearing Tucker’s position—which Tucker had made clear to him.
Sullivan acknowledges that Tucker would be a very strong candidate with a record of winning elections and a long history in the county. “I think I’m just as good a candidate, I mean if I didn’t think that there’d be no point in running,” Sullivan said, and adds, by way of explaining his lack of electoral wins: “The race to be REC chairman was a tougher one than he had.”
As for Democrats, either Senate or House race appears to be a lost cause.
Democrat Kathleen Trued won 40 percent of the vote against Thrasher in the Senate race last week—even though most voters knew Thrasher was resigning. She’s been traveling in Egypt to recover from the election, and has not returned calls. Merrill Shapiro, a top Democratic operative in Flagler, says her intentions are unknown at the moment. She would be the closest thing to a serious Democratic candidate in the Senate race. There are no Democratic candidates for Flagler’s House race, with both of the county’s more serious possibilities—Barbara Revels, who ran in 2004, and Milissa Holland, who ran in 2012—saying they’re out.
“The subtext or the backstory—and this is not an official Democratic Party position, this is what I’ve heard,” says Shapiro, who heads Team Flagler of the Florida Democratic Progressive Caucus, is that “certainly as it pertains of a house seat in our district that we only have the illusion of Democracy.”
He explains: between district lines intended to dilute the Democratic vote, voter ID laws that suppress more Democratic than Republican votes and the disenfranchisement of more than 1 million ex-felons in Florida, whose right to vote is not restored in Florida as it is in most other states, democracy itself has been diluted, Shapiro said. “We encourage Democrats to run, we want Democracy to proceed, but our district makes it very, very difficult for a Democrat to run and win, and thus persuade good Democrats to even bother.”
The Senate seat may have more pull for its winning candidate but, with Thrasher gone, will have less pull for Flagler County, both because it will be occupied by a freshman, and because the election will not feature a Flagler County candidate. For more than 40 years it’s been impossible for a Flagler candidate to win either in the House or Senate—in the Senate because voters from other counties (in the current case, St. Johns and Putnam) have always overwhelmed the Flagler Vote. In the House, because a combination of gerrymandered district borders and weak or more moderate Flagler candidates has ensured, time after time, that better funded, more connected and more conservative candidates from St. Johns have taken the prize.
But redistricting two years ago placed Flagler at the heart of District 24, giving a Flagler candidate more of a chance to win in almost two generations. Sixty percent of the district’s population is in Flagler. Volusia and St. Johns split the remaining 40 percent. (See the district’s profile here.)
Holland won the county in 2012 but fell short in the slivers of St. Johns and Volusia that the Legislature included in the district, tilting it more conservative. Revels, a Democrat, ran in 2004, when the district had different boundaries. She won Flagler by 1,000 votes but lost the district in a three-way race to Republican Bill Proctor of St. Augustine, who got 55 percent. Revels got 39 percent, and Libertarian Jerry Cameron got 5 percent. She ruled out another run. “I think I’m past the age to do that,” she said, even though the sort of Democrat she described as having a good chance to win—centrist, with a strong knowledge of local issues—is herself.
As for the Senate, she has little hope for any Democrat. “I cannot envision that if Kathleen Trued could not garner more than 40 percent of the vote after trying twice, and she was a good candidate,” Revels said, “I can’t picture that there would be another Democrat that could do that in the Senate district.”
Hutson, Revels said, is the more knowledgeable of the candidates now running for Senate, but he was not ideal for Flagler, either. Revels said Hutson did not push as hard as he could have to secure funding for drainage problems in the Malacompra area of the Hammock, and the county was disappointed by the watered down version of the House bill returning some regulations of vacation rentals to the county. Thrasher introduced a much stronger bill in the Senate. That bill would have given counties like Flagler more authority to regulate rentals. But Hutson diluted that version in the House, giving in to rental; interests. That’s the version that passed. Still, Revels said, that’s likely a reflection of Hutson’s freshman status. “Horsepower comes with time being spent there and choice committee assignments and all of those things,” Revels said.
Hutson’s strength in Flagler has been his visibility. He was at Flagler County’s Veterans Day commemoration this morning (with his wife and daughter), and was making an appearance at the Hammock Conservation Coalition in the evening. He’s already in campaign mode. But his visibility was no less pronounced before the special election, or even when he’d won his own re-election unopposed: he still made a point of being present at significant civic and political occasions.
“I was there for two years, filed 15 pieces of legislation, 12 of them passed the House floor, eight of them have become law,” Hutson said. In comparison, Renuart’s ratio has been much lower. Hutson included the vacation-rentals bill among those successes. Hutson was already critical of Renuart for “raiding trust funds” and raising vehicle registration fees in the past, though he acknowledged that this took place when the economy crashed—and that Renuart voted to lower the fees in the past session, as did Hutson.