For most of 2019 and 2020, Ray Rodrigues faced no opposition for a Senate District 27 seat. He secured support from Senate GOP leadership early and raised tons of money. He hoped to spend primary season boosting allies in other races.
That changed minutes before candidate qualification ended when Heather Fitzenhagen entered the race. While a rumored possibility, the move caught the Rodrigues camp by surprise. Fitzenhagen, a Fort Myers Republican, had previously ruled out running, a long-time political consultant advised against it and she had been running for Congress for months.
She said the abrupt changes in the political landscape amid the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the switch.
“At this point I feel the place to serve is in my community and in Florida,” she told Florida Politics at the time.
And so Rodrigues and Fitzenhagen, two state lawmakers from the same class who worked together for years in the Lee County Legislative Delegation, found themselves at war. It quickly became a bloody one.
The decision to go against Senate leadership drew immediate fire. The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, headed by Senate President-Designate Wilton Simpson, immediately bought air time slamming Fitzenhagen over a vote against a parental consent abortion requirement for minors.
The entry of the FRSCC into a primary battle raised some eyebrows. Naples Daily News columnist Brent Batten noted if Fitzenhagen wins, “the Republican Party would be in the awkward position of fielding a candidate it has labeled a hypocrite and ‘Planned Parenthood’s favorite politician.’” But the committee felt compelled to move amid rumors Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, Simpson’s rival for the Senate presidency, tried to intervene in the race and help Fitzenhagen on the hopes she might vote for him in the event of a split Senate, which could tip leadership to Democrats. Fitzenhagen denies any part in such a plan.
The Everglades Trust got into the game as well. In Florida We Trust, a committee formed at the same time Fitzenhagen entered the race and backed with money from the environmental group, started tying Rodrigues to agriculture special interests, labeling him “Sugar Ray.” Text messages started hitting Southwest Florida cell phones with similar messaging. One even featuring an odd clip of boxer Sugar Ray Leonard wishing Rodrigues well.
Rodrigues kept to the same script he unveiled at his campaign launch, saying he is a reliable anti-abortion voice who cared about water quality and fought alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis for projects like Everglades cleanup and waterway restoration. He dismissed challenges to his environmental record.
“I am proud of the work we’ve done to stop harmful discharges to the Caloosahatchee River, construct the C-43 Reservoir and raise 10 miles of the Tamiami Trail so water could flow south into the Everglades’ Florida Bay for the first time in a century,” he told Florida Politics.
And he leveraged the financial advantages that came with a year-long head start. His own campaign spent more than half a million dollars on the race, nearly six times what FItzenhagen spent. And that doesn’t count the power of multiple political committees under his control, which moved around hundreds of thousands of dollars leading into Tuesday’s primary.
Whatever happens Tuesday, the race isn’t quite over. A progressive movement aimed at recruiting candidates into every legislative race attracted Rachel Brown, a local activist, to file as a Democrat in the district. She plans to challenge either Republican that emerges Tuesday on their environmental records.
But in heavily Republican Southwest Florida, campaigns spent the bulk of resources in the primary knowing the GOP nominee heads into November a heavy favorite to win.