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Ray Rodrigues defeats Heather Fitzenhagen in SD 27 in dominating fashion

The late-forming Senate race shook Southwest Florida.

Rep. Ray Rodrigues looks as if he’ll be crossing the Capitol from the House to the Senate. Totals in Senate District 27 show the Estero Republican beating Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen in the Republican primary.

With all votes counted, he won almost 75% of the vote to Fitzenhagen’s 25%. Rodrigues will now face Democrat Rachel Brown in the general election.

But in deep red Lee County seat, the GOP nominee heads into November a decided favorite. Outgoing Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto didn’t face Democratic opposition her last time on the ballot in 2016. President Donald Trump won the district that year with 58% of the vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton‘s 38%.

“We’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Rodrigues said. “That’s fighting for the conservative values we believe represent not only the Republican Party but where the majority of Lee County is. We will do everything we can to energize the base and maximize turnout because we want success to go all the way to the top of the ticket and for us to get Donald Trump reelected as President.”

For most of 2019 and 2020, 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 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 featured an odd clip of boxer Sugar Ray Leonard wishing Rodrigues well.

But 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.

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.

At the end of the day, Rodrigues said he holds no ill will toward Fitzenhagen. “Heather reached out to me tonight and offered me her congratulations.” Rodrigues said. “I accepted that call. At the beginning of the campaign season we had a conversation and she made clear to me what ever happened was not personal. It’s business. I reiterated the same to her tonight. It’s just business.”
Written By

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 jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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