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DeSantis uses money and influence to reshape school runs in Florida

“She said, because I was endorsed by him, ‘you have my vote,'” Rosario said in an interview. “She didn’t even ask me where I stand on the issues or why I’m running.”

Rosario is one of more than two dozen conservative DeSantis school board candidates endorsed this election cycle, a move that was accompanied by $1,000 donations and then sparked a series of fan-fueled races across the state that have seen a huge amount of campaign money pouring in.

By wading through school board races and endorsing local nominees, DeSantis is trying to reshape the education landscape in the nation’s third most populous state. The move also leads Florida Republicans to send money and campaign aid on the eve of the primaries, in many cases targeting incumbents who have opposed some of the GOP policies.

Some candidates have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from individual donors. Political committees tied to Florida’s Republicans and Democrats are also pumping tens of thousands of dollars into these normally sleepy races — eclipsing the midterm amount in 2018 — highlighting the importance of K-12 education and mobilizing parents before november.

“Parental rights, curriculum transparency, and classrooms free of woke ideology are all on the ballot in this election, and it starts with school board elections,” DeSantis said last week when announcing a statewide campaign tour ahead of midterms.

Among those endorsements, the DeSantis campaign is targeting 15 school board races among multiple counties that challenged him and the GOP last fall by passing local student mask mandates.

DeSantis is also challenging at least 10 incumbents who are running for re-election. In most cases, incumbents, regardless of affiliation, are being pressured to raise significantly more money to defend their seats compared to four years ago, a sign of how endorsements are affecting campaigns this year. .

If he succeeds, DeSantis could find himself with new school board allies who can help him as he continues to speak out against teachers’ unions and Democrats who oppose the handling of Covid-19 mandates and how schools should teach lessons about race and gender identity.

Campaigns go wrong

In some cases, races have been heated.

In Sarasota County, a mobile billboard slammed a local school board candidate — who is endorsed by Democrats — as a “LIAR” and “BABY KILLER” for previously working at Planned Parenthood. The local Democratic Party called the ad a ‘new low’ while criticizing ‘DeSantis and other GOP operatives’, though the Republican gubernatorial-endorsed candidate also denounced the billboard, which was paid by the Sarasota County ABCD Political Action Committee.

In Miami-Dade County, a school board candidate was struck by a cease-and-desist from the DeSantis campaign in July for using a photo of DeSantis in an ad when the governor had already endorsed his opponent.

“It got ugly as a fairy,” Florida Democratic Party-endorsed Brevard County school board member Misty Belford said in an interview.

The Belford race is one of seven pitting a DeSantis-endorsed candidate against a Democratic-backed candidate, blurring the lines in what are, by law, nonpartisan contests.

The stark differences between the two sides play out on a hyper-local level, exemplified by dueling yard signs in Brevard County that demonstrate the impassioned rhetoric in some of these school board races. Alongside placards advocating for Belford to be re-elected, a parent propped up placards saying she ‘illegally masked your children’.

Belford said she was “not investing a lot of energy” in negative campaigning as she continued to knock on doors and canvass ahead of Tuesday’s election.

“The change in school board races has corresponded with the divided outlook of our people,” Belford said.

Belford, in her re-election bid, faces a political newcomer in Megan Wright, who has DeSantis’ backing.

Wright says she wants to stand up for parents on the school board and align herself with the Republican governor on the key issues conservatives are pushing for in 2022. “as an oppressor and race as an underdog,” which the GOP has referred to as remnants of “critical race theory”.

“The school board thinks it’s the parent of the kids, and that’s not its role in any way,” Wright said in an interview.

The DeSantis mentions each came with a contribution of $1,000 of its political committee. And on top of that, they also told conservative state lawmakers where to give their money.

Some DeSantis-backed candidates are blowing up fundraising competition. Yet others face tighter margins or even lose their races.

Wright, for example, leads incumbent Belford in raising $41,565 to $40,120. Four years ago, Belford’s campaign raised $18,709 to defeat an opponent who raised $28,902.

A race in Sarasota County — which leans Republican despite the council supporting masked students in 2021 — has two candidates who have combined to raise more than $237,000. In this high-profile matchup, Bridget Ziegler, a DeSantis-endorsed incumbent who is married to Florida’s Republican Party vice president, takes on Dawnyelle Singleton, an early political candidate with Democratic support vying to be the first school board member. Sarasota black.

Just days before the election, Ziegler’s campaign eclipsed $138,817 in donations, including $11,250 from political committees linked to the Conservatives.

And Singleton, who raised $134,648, was backed by supporters including Rosalie Danbury, a Democratic donor who sent $200,000 to the party, and Anita Springer, a board member of Planned Parenthood in New England. , the Sarasota Herald- Tribune reports.

Ziegler, by comparison, raised nearly $64,000 during his successful re-election campaign in 2018, records show.

In Miami-Dade County, an endorsement by DeSantis triggers a fundraising contest currently exceeding $405,000 between two contestants, records show.

Marta Perez, a school board member for 24 years, raised about $244,000 against a DeSantis-backed educator, Monica Colucci, who raised nearly $162,000, records show. Colucci has received more than $42,000 in donations from conservative-linked political committees, including state lawmakers across Florida like former state House speaker Chris Sprows (R-Palm Harbor) and new President Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast).

The power of endorsements

Money aside, DeSantis endorsements have weight that is not measured in cash.

Wright said his campaign has garnered more nationwide attention since DeSantis’ endorsement, though some of it comes from “keyboard commandos” calling him bad names on the internet.

“That absolutely helps,” Wright said of scoring an endorsement. “It lets people know where my policies are, where I stand.”

After DeSantis dropped his wave of support for school boards, Democrats stepped up their efforts to get involved in local races ahead of the primaries.

The Florida Democratic Party endorsed 28 candidates in total, and Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist, vying for the party’s nomination, also offered endorsements.

The PAC Collective – which helps elect black and previously aired television commercials for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum — endorsed Singleton, who is battling Ziegler, on Thursday.

The FEA, which is technically nonpartisan but generally aligns with Democrats, has donated $31,500 to 34 candidates since July, a slate that includes four people running against DeSantis-backed candidates.

And the progressive activist group Florida Rising endorsed a slate of nominees, saying Florida’s “GOP represents its business interests and the governor’s career ambitions.”

To that end, some Democrats and the candidates they support are questioning the effects of openly politicizing school boards. They claim DeSantis has created a “circus” for the candidates and fear the election will ultimately give him more influence on local councils, something state leaders elsewhere could seize on.

“If DeSantis gets his way, we’re going to start seeing this kind of rhetoric all over the country,” Justin Kennedy, a candidate for the Democratic-backed Volusia County Board of Trustees, told reporters on Friday. “It started in Virginia in 2020, where the governor was able to get some traction on some of these school issues. My fear is that this politicization of schools will spread like wildfire.

But the DeSantis-backed candidates see it in a different light. They sought his endorsement because they believe in the same ideas, which appear to resonate with voters in Florida and elsewhere.

“I’m proud of the endorsement,” Rosario said. “I support the governor as he supported me.”

Gary Fineout contributed to this report.


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