More than 20 years ago as a neophyte working in The Process, I first heard the tried and true maxim about money equaling success on Election Day.
What I didn’t understand then is that money aside, not all campaigns are created equal. Candidates are only as good as their message and regardless of how much money a campaign has, it’s their message — what they are offering voters — that can make or break a campaign.
Now, when people are hurting and facing the very real prospect of losing their business, their job, or even their loved ones to COVID-19 — combined with widespread social unrest — voters on Tuesday seemed more interested in candidates focused on the core issues impacting them right now.
In the Senate District 27 race between Reps. Ray Rodrigues and Heather Fitzenhagen, the Fitzenhagen campaign tried and failed to make the race not about pocketbook issues, but about influence from the sugar industry. Fitzenhagen and the political committee backing her campaign spent over $1 million attacking “Sugar Ray,” a thinly veiled assault on the industry itself.
As evidenced by Rodrigues’ resounding victory, voters were undeterred.
Rodrigues stuck to the conventional GOP themes of fiscal restraint, immigration, guns, and abortion — highlighting his conservative record over Fitzenhagen’s moderate one. It wasn’t until early August that Fitzenhagen tried to reverse course and boost her conservative bona fides after spending hundreds of thousands bashing the sugar industry.
The shift toward GOP primary issues proved to be too little, too late.
For reasons I do not fully understand, Fitzenhagen and her consultant, Jeff Roe, decided attacking the sugar industry — which doesn’t even farm in Senate District 27 — was more important than speaking to voters on the issues that matter to them.
Led by the Everglades Trust, an organization perpetually at odds with sugarcane farmers, the attacks bet that Southwest Florida Republican voters would care more about a single industry than electing a strong conservative candidate.
The campaign even took the rare step of leaking an internal poll to Florida Politics showing Fitzenhagen down by “only” 22 points just to reiterate its focus on running against Big Sugar, rather than Rodrigues.
The approach was similar to the one used by wealthy Orlando developer Chris King in the 2018 Governor’s race. Just as Fitzenhagen’s strategy failed to produce votes in the primary, so too did King’s — his message resonated with fewer than 3% of Democratic voters.
The approach was rejected by voters of both parties in Tuesday’s primary, too.
The Everglades Trust came up empty after endorsing Republican Casey Askar in Florida’s 19th Congressional District, former Democratic Rep. Irv Slosberg in Senate District 29, Republican Bryan Blackwell in House District 77 and Republican Roger Lolly in House District 78, among others.
In the Slosberg vs. Polsky race, the Everglades Trust and the anti-farmer lobby took the extraordinary step of endorsing in a district heavily reliant on agriculture. Senate District 29 includes farm country and cities such as Belle Glade and South Bay, where sugarcane and vegetable farms dot backroads and employ thousands.
Perhaps the writing was already on the wall and these candidates failed to read the room — or Zoom?
A St. Pete Polls survey in May found farmers enjoyed an 81% approval rating statewide in the midst of food shortages in the opening months of the pandemic. They ranked up there with medical professionals, truck drivers, and food service workers as among the most revered workers in the state.
The outcome of Tuesday’s election should serve as a cautionary tale for candidates and consultants alike: It’s not a good idea to attack the industries playing a vital role during a global pandemic. More importantly, all the money in the world won’t help if voters aren’t interested in your message.