Less than a year ago, the race for Florida’s 3rd Congressional District was expected to be a sleepy affair.
When U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho was running for his first term against Cliff Stearns, he promised he would serve eight years and bow out of office to avoid becoming a “career politician” — a not-so-subtle dig at Stearns, who had represented the district for nearly a quarter century.
But promises are made on the campaign trail oftentimes aren’t kept. Nine months ago, it appeared that was the case.
Yoho would back off the promise and run for a fifth term. He filed a statement of candidacy for the 2020 election and had been raising money for his campaign. Yet, when confronted, he told a Florida Politics reporter to “bank” on him leaving office.
It wasn’t until December 2019 that Yoho made his exit official.
Once he did, a flood of Republican hopefuls set their sights on the sprawling North Central Florida district.
Judson Sapp and Amy Pope Wells filed long before Yoho ended his campaign.
Then came Kat Cammack, a Gainesville-area Republican who had worked as Yoho’s campaign manager and deputy chief of staff.
By the end of January, the list had hit double digits with the entry of conservative author and speaker Ryan Chamberlin, former Gainesville City Commissioner Todd Chase, Bill Engelbrecht, former Gus Bilirakis staffer Joe Dallas Millado, Clay County Commissioner Gavin Rollins, physician James St. George, and David Theus.
Several others tested the waters, including former Gainesville Mayor Ed Braddy and current Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn, who backed out after producing a flashy video announcing his run.
With a dizzyingly high number of candidates making the ballot — the CD 3 Republican primary is the largest such contest in the state — the pecking order was a mystery until first-quarter finance reports dropped.
At the end of March, Sapp and St. George were far ahead of the field, though both men had leaned heavily on their personal wealth to get there.
Cammack was in third place both overall and in cash on hand, though she was virtually tied for first in true fundraising — to date, she has only floated her campaign $20,000, while Sapp and St. George have poured in enough money to buy a couple of McMansions.
There was a cluster of candidates behind her who had raised enough money to be taken seriously — Chamberlin, Chase and Rollins each broke the $100,000 mark in their debut report. By the end of the second quarter, however, they had mostly lost steam while the top three candidates piled on to their leads.
The trend held true in endorsements as well, at least for Sapp and Cammack.
Cammack, meanwhile, inundated those on her press release list with emails touting endorsements running the gamut from small-town mayors on up to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. Most times, they were issued in bulk — coalitions included first responders, Second Amendment stalwarts and anti-abortion groups.
St. George struck first on the airwaves, but his introductory ad may have come too late to build up the name recognition required to win the seat. Sapp had the benefit of appearing on the ballot in CD 3 two years ago, while Cammack has spent the past decade living in the heart of the district, leaving St. George to play catch up. It doesn’t help that he lives outside CD 3.
About a week after St. George dropped his first ad, Cammack showed up with hers. The spot cast her primary opponents as “chicken” and was somewhat reminiscent of Yoho’s 2012 “pigs at the trough” ad — a political ad that’s still talked about eight years later outside of the district as much as in it.
Polling indicates the style fits Cammack as well as it did her former boss. The few primary polls released have shown her on a steady incline. Early polls showed her in a solid second place to Sapp, then in a statistical tie, and most recently with a 10-point lead over him.
It’s possible Election Day could throw a curveball — one in five voters said they were undecided in the same poll that found Cammack pulling 25% of the vote. Whether Cammack proves the polling accurate or not, Yoho’s successor will emerge from the Republican primary.
CD 3 covers Alachua, Bradford, Clay, Putnam and Union counties as well as part of Marion. It is a safe Republican seat.