Is Polk a 51-49 county, part 1: The night the Polk GOP ate itself. Was it a blip? Or generational change?
Gov. Ron DeSantis made Polk School Board races explicitly R versus D. Then his Republican candidates -- cranks and not cranks, alike -- went from 57.3 percent of the vote in '20 to 46.7 in '22.
The image that follows is the map of the 2020 Polk County School Board August primary race between Democratic challenger Anita Carson and Republican incumbent Lori Cunningham. Cunningham won this race 57.3 to 42.7 — a 14.6 point margin in an R + 10 primary electorate. Note all the green in the precincts.
Long before Ron DeSantis caught on to the idea, the Polk Republican Party worked hard in ‘20 to make the non-partisan school board races generically partisan. They were pretty successful.
Lori Cunningham is your basic generic transactional Republican school board member — not a RINO, but not a Moms for Medicare Scooters1 crank either. She leaned in heavily to the partisan angle in ‘20 and got a lot of financial PAC support from the same state charter school people who named me “Public Enemy Number 1.” Democrats openly supported Anita Carson, who was then a teacher and is now an organizer for Equality Florida.
That partisan/cultural matchup in the ostensibly non-partisan race played out about how you might expect in Republican-dominated Polk County, as the map shows.
An 11.8-point margin collapse: What the hell happened?
Now, fast forward just two years to 2022, the year of tiny emperor Ron DeSantis declaring from on high that all Republicans must vote for all Republicans in all Florida School Board races — including Rick “T.I.T.S.” Nolte and his fellow CCDF2 cranks in Polk.
Well, in Polk County, one of our four 2022 School Board races very closely resembled the 2020 Anita Carson/Lori Cunningham race. It was Sara Jones, a Democrat, versus Justin Sharpless, a Republican.
Jones is a progressive defense lawyer and a black woman (straight up Grady Judd bait) with a “fight for public education” message very similar to mine. Justin Sharpless is a generic, rural community Republican, not a crank, much like Lori Cunningham.
Justin had the public financial support of the retiring Republican incumbent. If anything, Justin is closer to RINO than Lori. He’s a decent guy, in my view, and pro-public education. I like him a lot better than Lori; and Sheriff Grady Judd endorsed him publicly. So in an R+13 electorate, he romped, right?
Ummmm … not so much:
Justin eked out a 51.4% to 48.6% win in Ron DeSantis’ generic R v D match-up. That’s a 2.8-point margin. With mail-in, early vote, and 81 percent of precincts reporting, he was losing.
Justin Sharpless, a perfectly decent GOP candidate, endured an 11.8-point margin collapse from Carson v. Cunningham. That is the single most shocking local race outcome I have ever seen in my 23-ish years in Polk County.
And here’s the kicker: Justin Sharpless performed better than any other Republican School Board candidate in Polk County Tuesday night — in a primary electorate that was 52 percent GOP.
In 2022, Polk’s three crank CCDF GOP candidates, plus Sharpless, managed to win just 46.7% percent of the vote.
That’s either a 10.6 or 8.1 margin point collapse over ‘20, depending on how you classify my race in ‘20, which we’ll address in part 2.
The Democratic candidates in the three one-on-one, D v. R races over-performed their electorate by 10 points (Sara Jones), 11 points (Sarah Fortney) and 13 points (Kay Fields), respectively.
In the three-way Dem v. NPA v. GOP race, the combined Dem and NPA candidates (Lisa Miller and Dell Quarry) overperformed their combined electorate by 14 points against the criminal-hiring GOP crank Jill Sessions. Outstanding incumbent board member and NPA Lisa Miller will crush Sessions-the-Crank in the runoff.
Sara Jones looked just like Sarah Fortney; and “T.I.TS.” Nolte looked just like Justin Sharpless
Unfortunately, one of those cranks is Rick “T.I.T.S.” Nolte — this dude, who will soon be prowling the halls of your daughter’s middle school with Ron DeSantis’ explicit endorsement.
“T.I.T.S.” Nolte nipped incumbent Democrat Sarah Fortney by a little less than 2 percentage points Tuesday night — 50.97% to 49.03%.
Sarah Fortney is one of the best school board members in the state — a longtime teacher and a fierce advocate for all students and Polk school staff. Nolte is a gross human being, whose snowflake son was a classic abusive Facebook Uvalde man bully throughout the campaign. Nolte had the support of a PAC funded by Florida Power & Light and U.S. Sugar which ran stupid, gross mailers against Sarah Fortney.
Sarah Fortney became the first openly gay School Board member ever elected in the state of Florida in 2018, when she won 61 percent of the vote in the November general election. That entire 2018 campaign, like my winning campaign in 2016, was essentially devoid of any hard sell partisanship at the School Board level. That didn’t come until 2020; and it exploded in 2022.
So we were playing a very different game Tuesday night than we did in 2016 or 2018.
We who love Sarah Fortney feel her loss acutely in our personal attachment to decency and humanity and public education in Polk County. More on that to come in a different piece — including why I’m actually quite happy for Sarah. Her personal situation will improve. She will retain all of her latent advocacy power — and more. And I’m excited for her to play Yoda to my Obi-Wan (or vice versa) in haunting the Sith and “Darth T.I.T.S.” for the next four years.
But because of the immediate pain of Sarah’s loss, I think people have missed the real story of Tuesday night: Sarah Fortney and Sara Jones alike are evidence of massive GOP and DeSantis-specific failure in Polk County that would terrify me if I were a GOP strategist looking to re-elect the tiny emperor.
Every engine of the future in Polk County — America’s fastest growing MSA — voted against the GOP Tuesday night
Here is Sarah Fortney’s map, annotated. Take a look — and then look again at Sara Jones’ map below it.
If these two maps weren’t clearly labeled, could you tell them apart without looking very very closely? That’s what partisanship does. (I should say that partisanship in School Board races is a net harm; but I try never to delude myself about what I see.)
These races were not about Sarah being gay or Sara being black or Justin being a white male, rural ag. professor or “T.I.T.S” being “T.I.T.S.”
Individual characteristics did not matter. Bigger forces were at work.
I’ve long said Polk County looks like America; and in those maps you see the hardening urban/rural partisan split that defines American politics at the moment — with suburban votes very much a battleground. (A lot of the green just south of Lakeland, its wealthy, heavily GOP suburbs, were only very close wins for the GOP candidates.)
You also see a chunk of Republican voters of some size who punished Republican candidates in Polk County for being Republicans. There is no other explanation for what the data shows. They saw no difference between normal, decent Justin Sharpless and crank “T.I.T.S.” Nolte. They punished both equally.
A further swath of GOP voters then further punished the two GOP cranks who hired the CCDF’s criminal, church-cheating, 6 PPP loan collecting Texas campaign manager James Dunn. Terry Clark and Jill Sessions far underperformed Nolte and Sharpless.
To recap: Chief crank Ron DeSantis and his Polk GOP hench-cranks succeeded completely in making the Polk School Board elections partisan. In doing so, they lost basically every geographical engine of growth, commerce, creativity, and civic life in Polk County. And they added some functional chunk of Republican primary voters to the generic Polk County Democratic political coalition, at least for a night. Well played, GOP.
What happens in November? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Is this happening statewide? Does it carry over to November? Those are the billion dollar questions, right?
I don’t have this kind of data for other counties with any precision — although a quick look at Alachua County suggested the same pattern is at work there in a more Democratic county.
LATE UPDATE: The Ledger just reported some key historical data on primary turnout in 2018 (R+16) and 2020 (R+10). So 2022’s R+13 is right in the middle of what was a governor primary year, with a home-grown Republican, Adam Putnam, on the ballot, and a presidential primary year with Democrats energized by Trump, who wasn’t on that ballot, but who infected the whole season.
This year’s R+13 feels about as normal as a primary turnout year can feel.
And I’m missing a key piece of data for Polk — which I’m trying to get from the Polk Supervisor of Elections Office. I don’t currently have the partisan breakdown of turnout for the 2020 primary and general elections — or before. I don’t know if it’s normal for GOP voters to account for 52 percent of an August primary in Polk. I suspect R + 13 over Democrats in the primary is not wildly unusual. It feels about right. But I’d like to know for sure. It would provide some very useful context for how successful DeSantis was in driving GOP turnout.
Overall turnout of 23.4 percent was very typical for an August primary in Polk — which is generally in the low to mid 20s.
However, I do know the overall Polk voter registration. And it looks much different — and much less friendly to the GOP and DeSantis than Tuesday night’s electorate. It’s R+6 with a very large (30 pct) NPA fraction that was way underrepresented in Tuesday’s primary. See below:
Again, if you were in Crank HQ of the DeSantis campaign, what concerns might you have about those numbers? I report; you decide.
Will the necessary beatings continue?
Ron DeSantis is the Independence Day mothership of vicious cranks. Take him down; and the local crank ships that GOP voters just punished in Polk come with him.
Will these avenging GOP primary voters make that connection?
Well, let’s just say that I am going to spend a lot of time talking directly to my local normal, non-crank GOPers, working to convince them to continue acting on what they already know:
Ron DeSantis is …
“T.I.T.S.” Nolte is Ed Shoemaker is James Dunn is J.C. Martin is Saga Stevin is Steve Maxwell is Julie Fancelli is Matt Gaetz is Hannah Book Bannah is Jill Sessions is Terry Clark is the Proud Boys is the Lakeland Gazette is the guy forcing their daughter or wife or sister or mother to risk her life to give birth to a rapist’s fetus, etc.
The only way to purge these vicious cranks at home, in our communities, is to cut off the blood flow from their heart. And that’s DeSantis; it’s not even Trump anymore.
You know it; and I know it. Do you have the courage to act on it?
A lot of you seem to have done so Tuesday night; but it won’t matter unless you do it again in November.
Behavior, not identity
On the flipside, I would urge any Democrats/NPAs to make this decision as easy on GOPers as possible. It’s hard to take what amounts to a self-critical vote. So I would urge Dems and others not to use inherently, pointlessly, vaguely coercive “team” language like: we’re going to flip Polk County or Florida blue.
That color stuff has no meaning; it gains you nothing in persuasion (red or blue). It just comes across as a vague cultural attack on someone’s sense of community. It provides an organizational reason to circle the wagons to defend an attack that isn’t an attack. If I don’t vote for these vicious cranks, the Dems will make me and my family “blue” against my will. How stupid is it to give somebody that stupid reason?
Do not misunderstand me: be brutally assertive and specific about what DeSantis and the GOP do and what you will do that’s better. Ruthlessly, honestly describe and attack behavior, not identity. Celebrate behavior, not identity. The identity stuff will work itself out and celebrate itself through forceful critiques of behavior and corruption and abuse of power. “Crank” is a behavioral description, not a community or cultural identity.
Remember: a hateful culture war is always a grift before it’s a war. Attack the grift. They don’t want to fight on that ground.
Think about it; and tell persuadable GOPers with precision why Charlie Crist will better serve them and their community. And why there is no path to purging the cranks they punished in Polk Tuesday night that doesn’t purge DeSantis, too.
Part 2: The why: forced birth, Capitol Lynch Mob crankery, attacks on public schools and teachers, and Disney
In part 2, we’ll look at why I think this happened, which is some combination of:
Attacks on public schools and teachers and vulnerable kids
Up close views of vicious crankery, at the community level, closely tied to the Capitol Lynch Mob
The attacks on Disney in a county full of diverse Disney workers, most of whom live in Polk’s most Democratic and diverse region.
We’ll look at that through the lens of my beloved home city Lakeland, which voted against me in 2020, but rallied around Sarah Fortney, Sara Jones, and Kay Fields (two black women Democrats and a gay woman Democrat) as a massive 2022 block against the GOP candidates. I think this reflects acute Saga Stevin/Julie Fancelli trauma in the home city of Publix.
And we’ll look at the bellwether Solivita community precinct in extreme northeast Polk, which is huge and trending hard to Dems.
And, if you’ll excuse the self-reverence, we’ll look at those things in context of my own — bonkers — losing campaign map from 2020. I had never looked at it until yesterday; and it looks nothing at all like any of these other maps. It is hilariously incoherent — other than the very rural south precincts. I’m the green, not the orange.
Everybody hated me; and I got 48 percent of the vote — which, I have to say, appeals to my ego. And there may be something to discuss about an alternative approach to politics.
The “Moms for Liberty” movement is just Tea Party 4.0. They’ve been updating every few cycles. Their median voter is not a mom; it’s a 62-year-old white guy originally from New Jersey foaming at the mouth about Brandon.
The so-called County Citizens Defending Freedom (CCDF) is Polk County’s answer to Moms for Liberty, who I mock as “Moms for Medicare Scooters.”