Sarasota once again finds itself as the center of one of Florida’s hottest legislative races. Sarasota Democrat Drake Buckman faces Sarasota Republican Fiona McFarland in deep purple House District 72.
Already, there’s tenseness in the air, as the long-time trial lawyer gears up to face the already running campaign machine behind a Donald Trump-connected political newcomer.
“I’m expecting to get slandered. I’m anticipating it,” said Buckman. “But we are moving forward and have got support from every neighborhood in this district.”
McFarland, meanwhile, sounds boisterous as she readies for the final weeks of the campaign. “I feel like we have put in a good amount of work to connect with voters and get out and talk to people.”
Heading toward November, it’s as difficult as ever to handicap District 72. It’s a seat held now by a Democrat, but where registered Republicans outnumber the blue team by around 8,500. President Trump won here by four percentage points in 2016 over Hillary Clinton, making it the most pro-Trump Florida House district represented by a Democrat now.
But it may be a constituency with buyers’ remorse on the Trump agenda, as evidenced by incumbent Rep. Margaret Good’s seven-percentage-point win in a 2018 special election. Then again, Good a few months later won her first full term by a modest 1,144-vote margin over former Rep. Ray Pilon. This cycle, the prolific fundraiser decided to run for Congress instead of another term in the Legislature.
An affluent, mid-sized city, the district represents exactly the type of voters President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden have spent months trying to win over. That means both parties have plenty of incentive to boost turnout in the greater Sarasota area.
But Buckman said the race is more personal, a chance to represent the community where he has raised a family and built a career. A trial attorney whose claim to fame may be winning the largest settlement ever levied against the Sarasota Police Department believes the backdrop of a race around social justice helps his candidacy. It in some ways makes Buckman an ideal candidate in a year when police reform tops the agenda for progressives nationwide.
Yet, with Trump running on a “Law and Order” platform, members of McFarland’s team salivate at the criminal defense attorneys’ history of defending criminals and assailing police. McFarland has stressed her military service throughout the campaign, and will present herself as a friend to those in uniform.
“The narrative of ‘Drake Buckman was a young lawyer who defended murders,’ that’s the drum beat I expect,” Buckman said. “But I’ve done criminal defense. I’ve helped injured children. I’ve been a civil rights attorney for a number of years. I’ve been literally representing my neighbors in House District 72 for 25 years, and I have done everything I can to protect the rights of all of my clients. I’m not going to apologize.”
He said he expects to receive the Donna Barcomb treatment, meaning McFarland’s consultants will attack him with the same disparaging tactics employed in a hostile Republican primary. “Whatever our political differences, I can tell you Donna Barcomb is a credit to Sarasota, and this is a group that accused her of sympathizing with cop killers,” he said. “And they are in the same party.”
For her part, McFarland sounds a more optimistic tone. Fresh off a narrow Republican primary win over Barcomb and Jason Miller, she’s ready to engage in a contest of differing philosophies and ideas. Barcomb called McFarland to concede on Election night and McFarland said work is already well under way on bringing the party back together before November. “I had fantastic opponents that pushed all of us to be better candidates,” she said, “and we said all along that whoever emerged from the primary will truly be the best to face the Democrat. I think that’s where we are now.”
The focus for McFarland’s campaign now turns chiefly toward independent voters. There, confidence exists that some of the charges leveled against McFarland in the intra-party squabble — that she’s too sympathetic to Black Lives Matter and not hostile enough to Planned Parenthood — could in fact show swing voters she’s not an extremist. As for any conservatives who see her as moderate, those voters seem unlikely to defect to Buckman.
In fact, the presence of so many swing voters in this District attracted McFarland to live in the district in the first place, she said.
“Voters seem to be willing to vote a split ticket, which to me means they will vote for the candidate over the party,” she said, “and I love that. It rewards the candidate who can get out and make a case for voters to choose whoever makes a strong Representative. I hope I was able to do that in the primary, based on my leadership in the Navy and comfort making decisions in uncertain circumstances.”
With COVID-19 throwing Florida politics, business and life in general sideways this year, McFarland notes elected officials don’t get to choose the crises they must address in office. She plans to make the case that the ability to work through a crisis and make critical decisions in real time matter most in choosing representation in the Legislature. Her history serving on Naval vessels in the South China Sea during periods of political unrest shows she can work under pressure.
Any Republicans concerned with her loyalty, of course, will likely be assuaged by a conservative pedigree. She’s run with high-profile support of mother K.T.McFarland, a Fox Business pundit and Trump’s first Deputy National Security Advisor, an experienced candidate who previously challenged Clinton for her Senate seat in New York.
Connections to the Trump administration may simultaneously fuel Democratic efforts to paint McFarland as a loyalist to a failing regime. Buckman, too, draws attention to the challenges of the pandemic, namely what he considers poor response by Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
While Buckman said he won’t run the type of negative campaign Republican voters endured leading to August, he will draw contrasts between himself and McFarland, as well as the entire GOP record in Florida.
“Here’s the decision voters have to make,” he said. “There’s been a lack of leadership that could cost their health and that of their teachers. We need to prepare to repair the damage both of COVID-19 and the lack of Republican leadership around it at the state level.”
But exactly how will either candidate get their message to voters? The pandemic also greatly reduced traditional campaigning, though some door-to-door canvassing, digital forums and small events offer opportunities to (figuratively) reach out to voters.
For such a high-stakes race, there’s not much cash on sitting on the sidelines heading into September. After dumping a quarter million dollars into her primary race, McFarland as of Aug. 21 reported just $2,724 in cash on hand while political committee Friends of Sarasota had another $8,021. But at least she demonstrated an ability to turn the fundraising spigot on, and anational network of support could replenish her bank accounts before November.
Buckman, facing no primary opposition, raised $68,687 since entering the race in August and burned through half of it. Spending considerably less than McFarland over the course pf the last year, he held $34,325 in cash as of Aug. 21. That sounds like a sizable advantage in dollars, but he hasn’t benefitted from a year’s worth of intense efforts to build name recognition. He needs to build a profile in a matter of weeks, while Republicans presumably define in unflattering terms simultaneously.
Still, he’s in weekly conversations with the House Victory Fund and confident he will keep District 72 blue.
Local Republicans already had their eye on the race before Good announced she was seeking higher office. Pilon’s near defeat of Good last year despite being massively outspent leaves many wondering if the special election wins were a fluke. In a community where women voters outnumber and outperform male voters routinely, there’s also a widespread belief McFarland provides the image the local party needs right now in a way neither Pilon not James Buchanan, two Republicans felled by Good in District 72, could not do.
On top of all that, the region is represented in the Senate by Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and a close Trump ally. So the GOP has plenty to prove here.
The cash will likely come in the next few weeks as both sides try to break through the noise and prove they have the right candidate to represent moderate District 72, even as presidential campaigns paint one another as polar extremes.