Sarasota Democrats' Surprise Showing

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY AUG 25, 2018

There’s been an odd thing happening in Sarasota County during the lead-up to an Aug. 28 primary, something that may just portend to a more competitive general election this year. The Democrats have shown an ability to organize.

Now, no one should get too excited. The Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections reports that as of Friday morning, registered Republicans county-wide outnumber Democrats 133,772 to 96,293. But when it comes to mail-in ballots for the upcoming primary, Democrats have shown greater enthusiasm. The Division of Elections reports 18,004, compared to 16,663 Republicans.

What makes this especially strange is that Democrats statewide have disappointed. In the midst of a supposed #BlueWave, more than 508,000 Republicans so far mailed in ballots compared to 444,492 Democrats. Excuses abound. Maybe there’s indecision about the five-way Democratic primary for governor. Democrats prefer voting in person to voting by mail. But then GOP voters are actually outperforming Dems in early voting as well by about 8,000 votes statewide.

In Sarasota, Republicans have done better in early voting as well, with 5,252 casting votes that way compared to 3,550 Democrats.  That means the GOP still holds an edge, but only a by a scant 361 votes. That could change today if mail-in votes continue to come in faster than early votes.

Why have things been so close? For sure, some credit should go to JoAnne DeVries, a local party chair who in her short tenure helped organize Rep. Margaret Good’s shock win in a special election for state House in February, and who also helped Democrats keep unanimous control of the Sarasota City Commission.

But to explain this year’s enthusiasm you would expect some key vote inspirers on the ballot.

Statewide, Democrats and Republicans have the same number of competitive primaries, albeit Democrats may have a harder time choosing between five major candidates while Republicans face a binary choice.

Locally, there’s a county commission primary between New College grad Wesley Beggs and beach access activist Mike Cosentino. But honestly I’ve heard more interest in the Republican rematch between incumbent Commissioner Alan Maio and Siesta Key activist Lourdes Ramirez. We’ll see Tuesday which race gets more votes.

Democrats in the north County, a Democratic bastion, will choose a nominee to run against Rep. Vern Buchanan. But well-funded candidate David Shapiro has all but ignored his primary opponent, Jan Schneider. Certainly, the South County battle for an open Congressional seat, where the Republican primary pits prominent lawmakers Greg Steube and Julio Gonzalez, seems more consequential.

The biggest place where high Democratic turnout can be explained is in local School Board contests. In two of these races, party leaders on both sides made their preferences known. If incumbent Shirley Brown fends off a challenge from Karen Rose, or more unexpectedly challenger Nick Guy unseats incumbent Bridget Ziegler, it could be the biggest reward so far for Democrats posting good numbers.

But more important than winning any particular contest, high turnout in August could portend the same in November, when partisan stakes grow much higher. It’s certainly curious that as Democrats scratch their head confused about turnout statewide that Sarasota Democrats have stood out, matching the GOP nearly vote-for-vote. That will matter for whichever Democrat wins the nominee for governor, and it will be important to Sen. Bill Nelson’s re-election hopes. Even if Democrats fail to take any unexpected local office away from Republicans this year, it’s possible state party leaders will still pay more heed to what’s going on in this increasingly purple part of the state.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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