By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Stakes are high in a North Florida contest between a scion of a prominent Democratic political family and a former football star who is a “huge fan” of Gov. Ron DeSantis, in one of the state Senate’s most closely watched races this year.
Incumbent Sen. Loranne Ausley, a Tallahassee Democrat, is trying to fight off a challenge from Republican Corey Simon, a political newcomer who gained fame playing football for Florida State University before turning pro.
Both candidates are a known quantity in the district that includes Leon County and the surrounding rural Big Bend region, but for very different reasons.
Ausley, an attorney, served two stints in the Florida House, prior to being elected to the Senate in 2020. Her lineage includes former state lawmakers and prominent Tallahassee attorneys.
Simon was a defensive standout for FSU’s football team in the 1990s and went on to spend eight years in the NFL.
DeSantis tapped Simon in 2020 to lead Volunteer Florida. Simon stepped down from the post when he launched his Senate campaign in June.
Both Ausley and Simon bill themselves as being laser-focused on issues that impact the rural communities that surround the state capital.
“Being out in the district talking to folks about the issues they’re dealing with in their own individual communities, in their own households, isn’t something I only do in an election year,” Ausley said in a written response to questions from The News Service of Florida. “It’s the foundation of what I feel public service is all about. When I am out in the district, I am listening to my constituents and talking about the progress we’ve been able to make and the resources we’ve been able to secure for the Big Bend.”
Ausley pointed to having secured more than $1 billion in funding for the Senate district for fire trucks and fire stations, schools, hospitals, courthouses, water projects and parks.
The incumbent also noted that, following the once-a-decade redistricting process, the North Florida district’s rural reach has expanded to include Dixie, Lafayette and Suwannee Counties.
“Every fiscally constrained county is struggling with a lower tax base that makes it difficult to provide basic infrastructure needs like law enforcement, roads, health care and broadband, which is exactly why state and federal funding is so important,” Ausley said.
Simon said he is focusing on “kitchen-table issues” that impact families.
“Really it’s inflation, it’s gas prices, it’s home prices, it’s rent prices, it’s food prices,” Simon said in a phone interview. “It’s making sure that they have representation to try to alleviate some of the pressures that have been put upon them by the out-of-control spending. Folks are really hurting out there.”
Discussing his leadership role at Volunteer Florida and his relationship with Desantis, Simon said the governor was looking for someone “with some empathy but also a business background” to help bolster volunteerism in the state. He also outlined some of DeSantis’ policies that he supports.
“I’m a huge advocate and a fan of what the governor did with parental rights and making sure that parents make the best decisions for their kids, and I stand behind him on that. I’m a huge fan of what he’s put forth in terms of career and technical education,” Simon said.
Simon said that he comes from a “normal-person background” — his grandfather had a sixth-grade education and his mother worked for Publix supermarkets for 35 years — and he wants to send a message that politics is for everyone.
“I often think that politics has become its own class and normal people can’t relate. And for me, it’s about destroying that stigma and saying that we all have a voice, regardless of where we come from,” Simon said.
Ausley fended off Republican opponent Marva Preston in an unexpectedly competitive race for the Democratic-leaning district two years ago.
But Ausley’s backers say Simon’s name recognition in Senate District 3 should not be underestimated.
J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a former Republican political operative and lobbyist who is now an independent, said that, while he supports Ausley, she’s facing a stronger and better-funded opponent in the upcoming election.
“The Ausleys have been a factor in public service here in this community for decades, and they have served with distinction. And I think that she will do very well,” Stipanovich told the News Service. “Simon’s sole claim to fame is that he played football at FSU. That’s not anything to be gainsaid or turn your nose up at in a political race around here. I just don’t know how that will work out at the end of the day in what is pretty much a heavily Democratic district.”
Stipanovich argued that Republicans are counting on people in the district voting “for their football allegiance rather than their public policy preferences.”
Republicans, meanwhile, see a tantalizing opportunity to flip the district and increase their already lopsided majority in the Senate.
Leon County Republican Party Chairman Evan Power touted Simon’s presence in the community beyond his football playing days.
“Corey is well-known in our community. He was obviously a football hero at Florida State. He went on to lead the Pop Warner (youth football) program here locally. The governor trusted him to run Volunteer Florida for the state, and now he’s a candidate. So we think we have a tremendous candidate and a great opportunity to flip a district from blue to red,” Power said in an interview.
DeSantis gave Simon a high-profile endorsement over the summer.
While many GOP candidates who’ve received the governor’s blessing have prominently featured the endorsements in campaign materials, Simon’s mailers and television ads do not. They are instead adorned in FSU’s garnet and gold colors, and paint him as a candidate who wasn’t “born into power or privilege” — a shot at Ausley’s background.
Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, predicted that voters won’t be swayed by the GOP’s efforts.
“I do believe … that the people in this district are going to see through the facade that is Corey Simon, put up there by Republicans, (and vote) for somebody who’s there. Actually in the community, of the community, doing work as a part of the fabric of the community,” Book, D-Plantation, told the News Service.
She added that helping Ausley and Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, — two incumbents facing Republican challengers in recently redrawn districts — secure victories is “extraordinarily important” for Senate Democrats.
“We cannot and will not lose these seats, because it’s too important,” Book said.