The legislative session and the Jacksonville mayoral elections aren’t the only political dramas in North Florida these days as candidates battle it out in the special election for an open state House seat.
The special election was called when Republican Halsey Beshears gave up his seat to serve as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The district stretches across parts of the Big Bend and North Florida, including all of Calhoun, Franklin, Gulf, Jefferson, Lafayette, Liberty, Madison, Taylor and Wakulla Counties and part of Leon County.
The top candidates are Republicans Mike Watkins, the CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, and Jason Shoaf, a vice president of the St. Joe Natural Gas Company. Former Homestead Mayor Lynda Bell, who led Florida Right to Life, and nurse and conservative activist Virginia Fuller, who ran for unsuccessfully for Congress in California before challenging U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Fla., last year, are also running.
The two leading Republican candidates are stressing their conservative credentials as they look ahead to next month’s primary.
The Shoaf team insists their candidate is the conservative in the race, pointing to his support of President Donald Trump when it comes to securing the borders and protecting the Second Amendment.
The Watkins camp is trying to claim the same ground, insisting their candidate backs Trump. Watkins, a longtime member of the NRA, insists he can stand up to the left.
Both of the top Republican candidates also insist they will focus on helping the area recover from Hurricane Michael and they have reeled in some major support behind them.
Shoaf points to vocational training as one of his top priorities which has led to some leaders of the business community to back his campaign including the Florida chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and the Associated Builders and Contractors of North Florida. He also has the support of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison and Madison County Sheriff Ben Stewart.
But the Watkins campaign also reeled in the backing of some prominent leaders, including from law enforcement.
“Local sheriffs need an ally in Tallahassee to help them fight against crime,” Watkins said. “We have their support.”
Watkins has the support of Sheriff Kevin Crews of Washington County, Sheriff A.J. Smith of Franklin County, Sheriff Wayne Padgett of Taylor County, Sheriff Eddie Joe White of Liberty County and Sheriff Alfred Kenneth McNeill of Jefferson County. The Watkins team also pointed to the support of local NRA members.
Bell has the support of Florida Right to Life’s PAC and touts her “A” rating from the NRA.
Whichever Republican wins the primary on April 9 will be a heavy favorite over Democrat Ryan Terrell in the special election on June 18.
While Democrats make up 51 percent of the district while 36 percent of voters here are Republicans, the area goes for the GOP in general elections. Donald Trump took 67 percent of the vote here back in 2016 while Hillary Clinton pulled in less than 29.5 percent of it.
Contact Ed at Ed.Dean@FloridaDaily.com.