Many in Tallahassee wrote off House District 72 as a Democratic loss months ago. But with a Republican who burned most of her money on a pricey primary win and the presidential race energizing Democratic voters, this open seat has become a nail-biter.
Democrat Drake Buckman, a Sarasota lawyer with a history battling police, now battles Republican Fiona McFarland, a Naval reservist with family ties to the Donald Trump administration. As of mid-October, McFarland held the financial edge with $77,999 on hand to Buckman’s $66,575.
A survey by St. Pete Polls around the same time showed Buckman up 4 percentage points in the race. That’s impressive considering he has spent less than $150,000 while McFarland plunked down close to $350,000.
But a huge portion of McFarland’s spending went into a bruising Republican primary against Sarasota County Charter Review Board member Donna Barcomb. McFarland ultimately won the nomination in August by 266 votes out of 17,779 cast.
That was supposed to be the hard part, as local Republicans have made a priority of winning back House District 72 for close to three years. It stunned much of the political world when Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, first won this seat in a Special Election in 2018. But holding a race at the then-nadir of President Donald Trump’s popularity months head of a blue wave midterm always disadvantaged the GOP.
Good defended her seat in November the same year, but by a closer-than-expected margin and after spending more than a million dollars in the cycle combined between the Special and General Election. So when Good announced she was filing for Congress instead of reelection, GOP leaders saw HD 72 returning to the Republican column.
McFarland also came into the race with a national network of support through her mother, former Trump Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland. That helped the younger McFarland get spotlighted in national conservative media and outraise every other contender for the seat this year.
With Trump trailing in the polls — the same survey showing Buckman winning had Joe Biden up in HD 72 by 16 points — that connection brings its own baggage. McFarland also has been slammed as an outsider.
But as a trial lawyer, Buckman brings his own political vulnerabilities. In a year when House Republicans have dragged Democratic candidates around the state for not supporting police, Buckman devoted much of his career to criminal defense, including a case where he sued the Sarasota Police Department and got a then-record settlement.
Both cast themselves as common-sense moderates suited to the purple politics of Greater Sarasota. McFarland said a community willing to split their ticket was part of the draw to the region for her. Buckman, meanwhile, has focused on the environment while criticizing Republican leadership’s handling of the pandemic.