By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A North Florida Senate district controlled by Democrats for decades is in the crosshairs of incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican who is pouring money into a contest that has surprisingly become one of the most contentious legislative races in the November elections.
Rep. Loranne Ausley, a scion of one of Tallahassee’s most prominent families, was elected to two stints in the state House before launching a bid in Senate District 3, an open seat currently held by term-limited Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
Ausley long was considered a shoo-in to win the sprawling district, which includes the capital city and 11 largely rural counties, stretching from the Gulf Coast to the Georgia border. In addition to Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, those counties are Franklin, Gulf, Taylor, Wakulla, Calhoun, Gadsden, Jefferson, Liberty, Madison and Hamilton.
Democrats make up nearly 53 percent of the district’s roughly 338,000 registered voters, while Republicans comprise about 30 percent, according to a state Division of Elections report issued before the August primary elections.
But Simpson, who takes over as Senate president after the Nov. 3 election, is funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to back Republican candidate Marva Preston, a veteran law-enforcement officer and ordained minister who is Black. A native of Wakulla County, Preston spent nearly three decades working for the Miami Police Department before returning to her home turf in Crawfordville.
The Senate district has reliably supported Democratic presidential candidates in statewide races and was solidly behind former Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in his losing re-election bid against Republican Rick Scott in 2018.
But Republicans are hoping to capture enough voters in outlying counties and Black voters in Leon County to expand the GOP’s 23-17 grip in the state Senate.
Simpson, a Trilby Republican, is in charge of raising money for GOP candidates in Senate races. The battle over the North Florida seat is one of four battleground Senate contests, including two districts where Democrats hope to chip away at Republicans’ control of the Senate.
In District 3, a Simpson-led political committee has underwritten a barrage of near-daily mailers attacking Ausley or promoting Preston and has saturated the airwaves with television ads doing the same. The onslaught of ads — and the money behind them — has stunned political insiders on both sides of the aisle.
“It’s a shockingly large amount of mail that they’re spending (on) in this race. And most of it’s to attack Loranne, most of it’s negative,” Scott Arcenaux, a Democratic consultant who’s working on Ausley’s campaign, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview.
The negative ads are focused largely on the Florida Democratic Party’s receipt of at least $350,000 in federal funds meant to help small businesses recover during the coronavirus pandemic. After the state party’s acceptance of the money was revealed, Democrats said it was given in error and pledged to return the funds.
But Simpson’s team is using the party’s participation in the federal Paycheck Protection Program to blast Democratic candidates in the four competitive Senate districts, accusing them of potential fraud.
Ausley, a lawyer, acknowledged that the party took the money but said during a recent candidate forum that she and other Democrats “condemned it at the time.”
“Our campaigns did not receive any money, and this is another page from the Trump playbook of lies and distractions because they don’t want to talk about the issues,” she said.
The Republicans’ tactic of linking candidates in the battleground districts to the federal funds “is just false,” Arcenaux said.
“They’re doing it to distract from the fact that the candidates that they’re running in these races don’t connect with the districts that they’re running in and don’t connect to the voters that they’re trying to appeal to,” he said.
The messages targeting Ausley also use images from her first TV campaign ad, which features the 56-year-old triathlete running, cycling and swimming. Some critics blistered the video, saying it depicted an elitist who is out of touch with the plight of average Floridians struggling to make ends meet amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Ausley’s supporters point to her record in the Florida House to illustrate her commitment to public education, the environment and people with disabilities, such as her son, Will. Ausley served in the House from 2000 to 2008 and then came back to the chamber in 2016.
Many insiders initially believed Simpson was throwing money at the North Florida race to force Sen. Gary Farmer, who will take over as Senate minority leader after next month’s elections, to drain resources that could be steered to what were considered to be more competitive races in the Orlando area and South Florida.
But Preston has Simpson’s full-throated support.
Preston’s candidacy “defies the Tallahassee establishment’s conventional wisdom about who belongs in the Senate,” Simpson said in a text message.
“But outside of that bubble, hardworking people of North Florida are desperate for leaders willing to earn their vote, rather than just take it for granted,” he said.
Ausley’s backers, meanwhile, are linking Preston to Republican President Donald Trump, who was defeated by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic-leaning district four years ago.
“Tallahassee Republicans know Marva Preston can’t run on her commitment to ending a woman’s right to choose, stripping people with pre-existing conditions of their access to health care and opposition to common-sense gun safety reforms, so they’ve resorted to the same shameful tactics used by Donald Trump,” Anders Croy, spokesman for Senate Victory, the Democrats’ campaign arm, told the News Service.