Qualification week tests mettle of many a congressional campaign

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Who will make the cut?

The field of candidates running for Congress in Florida should be much clearer by week’s end.

Federal qualifying begins at noon on Monday, and which point the clock starts on 96 hours of proving viability. Come noon Friday, candidate who haven’t submitted the required thousands of valid signatures or $10,440 fee (for partisan candidates) will unceremoniously disappear from the candidate field.

Some surprise entries may yet join in. That seems a particular possibility for write-in candidates, who won’t appear on that ballot and need not pay anything, but who have the power to close primaries.

Mix in the consequences of a global pandemic some candidates threatens their candidacy — and the principles of free and fair elections altogether — and this could be as consequential a qualifying period as the state has seen.

The Wider Field

As on Monday morning, the Division of Elections listed 183 candidates actively running in Florida’s 27 Congressional districts.

Some open seats, like Florida’s 3rd and 19th Congressional Districts where Ted Yoho and Francis Rooney are retiring respectively, a wide number of candidates shows up in the database today. In other areas like Florida’s 13th and 21st Congressional Districts, an inordinate number of challengers have lined up to challenge incumbents Charlie Crist and Lois Frankel.

But veteran campaign treasurer Nancy Watkins said there’s reason to expect that to change. While there’s nine Republicans running in CD 19 and 11 running in CD 3, for example, Watkins expects only a half dozen GOP candidates to qualify in each race.

To look at CD 19, which could be one of the most expensive races in Florida, there’s a dozen Democrats and Republicans listed as candidates by the Federal Election Commission. But March fundraising reports show paying a $10,440 fee could be difficult if not impossible for some. Democrat Cindy Banyai and Republican Christy McLaughlin had less than $12,000 in cash on hand at the close of the first quarter. Republican Darren Aquino only had a little more than $1,700. Independent Antonio Dumornay, who only needs $6,960 to qualify without party affiliation, did not file a report.

In CD 3, there’s even more who seem to lack the resources to qualify. Republican Amy Wells has $10,087, just shy of the required amount, in cash on hand. But Republican opponents David Theus, Kent Gunn and Ed Braddy don’t have enough in the bank to float the payments.

In CD 13, there’s three candidates who lack the cash to qualify. In CD 21, there’s 10.

“I expect all of the districts to clear out more,” Watkins said.

That will bring some contests into clearer focus. There’s only three Republicans, for example, who raised more than $100,000 to challenge Crist in CD 13 — Amanda Makki ($747,206), George Buck ($612,135) and Anna Paulina Luna ($369,871).

In CD 21, only Laura Loomer, with $$561,233, has raised six digits to challenge Frankel.

But then there’s candidates in all these races who have raised enough to qualify, if not comfortably. It’s those candidates who may deserve the most attention this week. In CD 19, Republicans Heather Fitzenhagen, Randy Henderson and Dan Severson all have enough to qualify, but are sitting on less than $90,000 in cash so it would be a chunk. Republican Matt Becker in CD 13 faces a similar dilemma. And Republicans Gavin Rollins and Ryan Chamberlin have just under $100,000 in the bank in CD 3.

In Florida’s 7th Congressional District, two Republicans — Leo Valentin with $276,327 and Yukong Zhao with $106,638 — have more than $100,000 in cash on hand to challenge Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy. But there’s another six candidates for whom qualification would break the bank.

Unreasonable cost?

But many grassroots candidates say the COVID-19 crisis has made qualification especially unfair. Banyai, a Democrat in CD 19, and Michael Bluemling, Jr., a Republican in CD 21, have spearheaded a bipartisan group of candidates calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Laurel Lee to waive or greatly reduce requirements to run.

The chief reason is that the COVID-19 global pandemic, has severely limited the ability to gather petitions or host fundraisers since early March. A stay-at-home order issued April 1 by DeSantis made either activity all but impossible.

“It is no longer possible to conduct face to face campaign events, including gathering petitions, with the stay-at-home order for at least the next 30 days,” read a joint statement. “State and county offices supporting the elections process have been closed without any guidance to candidates on how they can qualify for the ballot given these extenuating circumstances.”

The effort hasn’t been fruitless. A state directive allowed for candidates qualifying by petition to submit digital signature cards, though candidates have complained each county has interpreted that differently, with some saying cards must be printed, signed and rescanned by voters before images get sent in, and other saying digital signatures on smart devices to virtual documents via smartphones can count.

More important for federal candidates, the order didn’t even come down until the petition deadline for Congressional candidates had passed in March.

But for campaigns with their paperwork in order, flexibility would not be welcomed.

Democratic campaign consultant Christian Ulvert said whether campaigns are raising dollars or signatures, they should have been organized well before March.

“By March 1, they had to be on the downward slope of petition collection, not the upward,” he said.

Watkins agreed, and said candidates who had funds raised and petitions gathered would be hurt unfairly by easing rules now. Even if fees were waived and every Congressional campaign in Florida got an extra $10,440 to play with, it would cost them to face a wider field of opponents.

“There will be a lot of squawking and lot of claims that campaigns didn’t qualify because of this,” Watkins said. “But I don’t think those candidates had the ability to make qualification.”

There may yet be political strategizing going on around qualification.

Ulvert notes that with the pandemic, the Florida Division of Elections has worked in unprecedented ways with campaigns when it comes to documentation. Once an agency insistent on paperwork mailed at least 24 hours in advance if not hand-delivered in Tallahassee within a short four-day window, Ulvert said the Division has been working with candidates since April 6 to get qualifying documentation in and allowed for more digital uploading. That may be bad news for FedEx overnight delivery, but Ulvert expects it will make for a smooth qualifying week.

“A candidate that didn’t submit 10 days ago has missed a unique opportunity,” he said,

Ulvert said he’s paying attention to whether write-in candidates in some races mysteriously appear. Florida law opens primaries to all voters if the election will be decided by the August race. But even a write-in who pays no money will appear on the November ballot, and therefore will limit a primary to only voters registered with a party.

Interestingly, every Congressional race with more than a dozen candidate in Florida has mostly Republicans running.

In smaller fields of candidates, it’s entirely possible qualification will determine if a primary even takes place. That could be important for incumbents like Republican Neal Dunn, in Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, or Democrat Kathy Castor, in Florida’s 14th Congressional District, who have opponents who are filed with the FEC but have yet to report a single dollar raised.

It’s also qualifying week for judicial candidates like State Attorney, Public Defender and Judge.

The Friday noon deadline has all the makings of the first widely consequential moment of the 2020 election cycle in Florida, sans maybe the Democratic presidential primary.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


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