School Board Races Offer Political Test

Under The Hood

School board races in the region have grown increasingly partisan. Gov. Ron DeSantis may have just stepped things up this election cycle. He endorsed a substantial number of candidates for School Board across the state, including in every race in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Before anyone clutches pearls, Rep. Charlie Crist, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for Governor, also issued School Board endorsements, though to date, none have gone to Sarasota or Manatee candidates. That said, it seems clear voters will have a slate of Republican Party-backed and Democratic Party-backed candidates to choose from in the region. It also means this area will serve as a tremendous testing ground for exactly the value of state partisan support in nonpartisan races that won’t be decided during high turnout general elections.

That makes now a great time to look at SRQ’s Where The Votes Are analyses of past elections. First let’s look at the 2020 election. Something wild happened that August. Despite both Manatee and Sarasota being Republican counties, Democratic turnout in the August primary was the highest of any party group in the primary. This meant nothing in closed primaries, but school board races were among the only contests non-Republicans had to vote on at all. The result? Eric Robinson, a former Sarasota GOP chair, lost his seat on the Sarasota County School Board to Democrat Tom Edward, even as Republican Karen Rose won an open seat. Gina Messenger survived a challenge from a parent activist in Manatee. Another incumbent up there, Doug Miner, came out on top in a multi-candidate race but had to defend himself in a November runoff, where the presidential race drove turnout, and Miner went down in flames.

But that was a presidential year. It’s important also to look at a gubernatorial cycle: 2018. In Sarasota, Democrat turnout was even higher compared to Republicans in Sarasota in August, though the GOP turned out stronger in Manatee. In Sarasota, three incumbents won election in August, including both Republican Bridget Ziegler and Democrat Shirley Brown, though both barely won by margins of around 1,000 votes. In Manatee, Democrat James Golden unseated Republican John Colon, left-leaner Charlie Kennedy won re-election and conservative Scott Hopes almost lost his seat to a more moderate candidate, but bounced back in a November runoff lifted by voters who, most likely, were most motivated to elect DeSantis as Governor.

Of note, these elections showed a lot of voters capable of split voting. Or maybe they revealed that regardless of party activity, many voters had no concern about the party of candidates unless a big R or D appeared on the ballot. It's hard to tell

You have to remember, partisan engagement in elections is two-pronged. First comes organization, with parties working overtime to turn their voters out to vote. But the second part of the equation is the behavior of the actual voters. Even many hardcore partisans won’t always educate themselves on the party affiliation of candidates in nonpartisan races.

Will things be different this year? No gubernatorial candidate has prioritized winning school board races the way DeSantis has, and he has made parental rights — or his interpretation of them — a central part of his agenda. There also hasn’t been a candidate with the type of persona DeSantis holds at this particular moment engaging with these races. Whether you consider DeSantis the frontrunner for the GOP nomination for president in 2024 likely depends on how realistically you take the chances of a third Donald Trump presidential campaign. 

But until the upcoming August election, there’s not been a test of how much command this Governor holds with voters. His popularity polls extrenely high with Republicans and he’s an unquestionable favorite for re-election— in November. But will primary voters in August, when DeSantis faces no challenge for the GOP nomination and won't appear on the ballot, turn out by his command? Will nonpartisan and even, if such people exist anymore, conservative Democrats?

This August, Sarasota and Manatee will demonstrate the answer to these questions. And the ramifications could be enormous.

Jacob Ogles is senior contributing editor for SRQ MEDIA.

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