Few people in Sarasota knew the name Fiona McFarland two years ago. But today, she’s preparing to open offices in House District 72 and Tallahassee after winning a closely watched election in one of Florida’s swingiest districts.
“The work starts now,” McFarland said, “and there is a lot of work ahead of us.”
This election proved to be plenty of work itself. McFarland ultimately won 55% of the vote in the Sarasota area House race, defeating Democrat Drake Buckman and flipping a district from blue to red. House Republicans on Tuesday netted five seats, growing their majority to 78 of 120 seats, and McFarland heads to the Florida Capitol as a big part of that success story.
But as she basks in congratulations, McFarland said she feels most proud of the state of democracy in Florida.
“Look at the turnout numbers,” she said. “There are so many people who voted for the first time this cycle, and so many people who hadn’t voted in a long time. It’s really good for us. It’s good for the state and it’s good for the country.”
The course to Tallahassee for McFarland was uncharted. The Naval reservist moved to the region with husband Matt Melton and started making noise about a run in early 2019. It was her first run for office, though her mother, K.T. McFarland, was President Donald Trump’s first Deputy National Security Advisor and had run against Hillary Clinton for Senate in New York.
After serving in the South China Sea and working communications in the Pentagon, she arrived interested in further public service. As it happened, one of her mother’s former campaign consultants, Adam Goodman, knew a political consultant in Sarasota, his brother, Max Goodman.
“I agreed to sit down with her not planning to offer her my counsel, but she turned out to be a superstar,” Max Goodman recalls. He immediately started advising her on politics and introducing her to the powers that be.
Former Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo took immediate notice as well, and figured more would do the same. “People will recognize when people are into public service,” Caragiulo said. “As corny as it sounds, it’s a legitimate thing. I was refreshed by the honesty and candor, personally-wise and what she can bring to the table.”
And as a young female candidate, one with fundraising ties to Trump world, but who broadcasted a moderate image, many immediately saw her as a great candidate to challenge Democrat Rep. Margaret Good in House District 72.
The district has been a bit of a political football in the region for some time. The current lines were drawn in 2012, right after Republican Ray Pilon defeated Democratic Rep. Keith Fitzgerald by less than 1,400 votes in the Republican wave in 2010 in then-House District 69. With a slightly more Republican make-up in redrawn House District 72, Pilon defended the seat successfully in 2012 and 2014, but when it opened up in 2016 it was viewed as a battleground. Republican Alex Miller still won the seat when a scandal besieged Democrat Ed James III weeks before the election.
But when Miller quit early, Good flipped the seat blue again in a nationally watched Special Election in February of 2018. The following November, Pilon challenged her for the seat but fell short. Still, seeing the Democrat win by under 1,200 votes left Republicans salivating for revenge. McFarland, in many ways, represented a conservative foil.
Good ended up running for Congress rather than reelection (she lost to incumbent Vern Buchanan by 11 percentage points). That made a path for McFarland more clear.
But that’s not to say everyone welcomed her to the race with open arms. Sarasota County Charter Review Board member Donna Barcomb had already filed for the race, and in fact attorney Erik Arroyo had already dropped out to run for Sarasota City Commission (a race he won Tuesday night). Pilon endorsed Barcomb early, and many questioned McFarland’s entry, hoping to avoid a divisive primary. With McFarland in the contest, one came.
The August primary ultimately closed with McFarland beating Barcomb by just 266 votes. She’d been hit on questions of whether she was conservative enough on issues like abortion and defending the police. But McFarland remained chipper as she turned attention to November.
The atmospherics looked challenging, with polling suggesting Trump was dragging down many Republicans in the state, including McFarland. A mid-October survey by St. Pete Polls showed her losing the swing district by 4 points as Buckman hammered her over residency issues; she owned a home in Manatee but lived in a condo within the district.
But she relentlessly knocked on 34,000 doors, even in the midst of a pandemic with a newborn baby in tow. Keeping social distancing and wearing a mask to every doorstep, she introduced herself to as many voters as possible. Caragiulo recalls wondering if running a ground game in a pandemic would be welcomed by voters. It turned out many cooped up in quarantine for months were eager to talk issues from a safe distance with whoever came knocking.
“We put in the hard word,” McFarland said. “We focused on doing as well as we could on the factors that were controlling. We knocked on doors. We were raising money.”
The pandemic shifted voters’ focus, who cared about public health and economic impacts alike. She spoke highly throughout of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the situation. But she also stressed how the pandemic showed no candidates ever get to decide the issues voters care about. Nobody may have gotten into the race concerned about pandemic response, but it’s all voters cared about in conversation. She hoped her resume of handling crises while in uniform would make a difference in who voters chose.
“It was such an interesting year,” she said. “We had a confluence of events that all came together. But I think people’s awareness of government has got to be at an all-time low. How many people didn’t know who their Governor was before the pandemic? Now they know not only who he is, but the different between the state assembly and the Congress and Florida House.”
Now she arrived in Tallahassee knowledgeable that voters will pay closer attention to her votes and deeds than any predecessor expected before.
“I don’t think we ever had this level of engagement,” she said. “ But that just makes it such an exciting time to be involved.”