Can Derek Reich pull an upset on Fiona McFarland in HD 73?

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He thinks recent School Board races prove the district can be competitive. But at what cost?

Based on the 2020 election alone, state House District 73 should be Florida’s hottest race. Statistics from MCI Maps show 49.7% of voters in the newly drawn district favored Republican Donald Trump while 49.34% went to Democrat Joe Biden, the closest margin for any House District in Florida.

Yet, as it stands, Rep. Fiona McFarland enjoys a cash advantage and the full support of the Republican Party of Florida. Democrats, already at a severe disadvantage in the Legislature, shifted into defense mode this election cycle and remain focused on holding seats to prevent a supermajority in the House.

Derek Reich, a school teacher infuriated by votes the freshman lawmaker took in her first term, hopes to make the district as competitive as the last election suggest it was destined to be.

The 27-year-old became the only Democrat to file against McFarland in an area where voters elected a Democratic state Representative as recently as 2018. And, among local Democrats, there’s growing belief he can win the race even as no one with an 850 area code seems to be paying any attention.

Even as the local party smarts over losses in local School Board races, Reich saw evidence in the Aug. 23 Primary Election that he may have a stronger chance than many realize at winning a seat in the Legislature.

“We will send a Sarasota County native and a teacher to Tallahassee,” Reich said. “We need to have a Sarasota County native who won’t sell out his community.”

A purple seat

His comments, like many, include veiled shots at McFarland, a New York transplant who moved to Sarasota a year before her election to the House in 2020.

Rep. McFarland is the daughter of K.T. McFarland, a former U.S. Senate candidate in New York and Deputy National Security Advisor under former President Donald Trump who regularly appears on national conservative news stations. That connection both served to link the lawmaker with a national network of support and see her stand as a perpetual target for critics labeling the Republican incumbent a tainted carpetbagger.

But that hasn’t stopped McFarland’s near instant popularity and success in the region. She initially filed for office against former state Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat who flipped a House seat blue in a 2018 Special Election landslide, then held on in a General Election nail-biter that same year.

Good ultimately ran for Congress in 2020, leaving the seat open. McFarland won a challenging GOP Primary, then scored a near 9-point victory over Democrat Drake Buckman. That nearly mirrored the Special Election win for Good barely two years prior.

As she seeks re-election, McFarland has built a sizable amount of resources and a record over two years she believes merits another term.

“I’m looking forward to the campaign and hearing from my constituents about how I can best represent them next Session,” McFarland said.

Through Aug. 26, she has raised $187,514 in her candidate account alone, and still holds $150,824 in cash on hand. Additionally, McFarland controls the political committee Friends of Sarasota, where another $110,435 lays in wait if needed.

By comparison, Reich through the same date raised $31,093, and he has spent about a third of it, with $20,919 still in the bank.

GOP leaders remain confident in McFarland keeping her seat red. Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters, also a state Senator whose constituency includes all of McFarland’s House district, said he is “100%” confident McFarland prevails in November.

“Fiona is an exceptional candidate and is running against an unknown with few resources and has no state party support,” Gruters said.

Redistricting shifted her into a more coastal territory that looks a little more purple — Trump won McFarland’s old House District 72 with 50.9% to Biden’s 48.02% the same day she won her first term — but the Republican remains confident.

“I have some new geography in my district due to redistricting, so their perspective and voices will be important to hear,” McFarland said. “The campaign in 2020 was so unique due to COVID, so for many folks this will be our first chance to talk in person.”

Surprise attack

Reich knows many underestimate him. Because of age. Because of his job. Because this is his first time running for office. But he also sees a political environment right for an educator to win an election. That’s part of why Charlie Crist, the Democratic nominee for Governor, picked the head of Florida’s largest local teachers union as a running mate.

His background also offers credibility to Reich in his sharpest attack against McFarland.

The incumbent went along with House leadership on a budget plan that would have denied $12 million to the Sarasota County School District as punishment for the School Board enforcing a mask mandate for a matter of weeks in defiance of an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis. Ultimately, the House backed down from that course of action, in part because the Senate pushed back on it.

That included Gruters, who penned an op-ed in the local Sarasota Herald-Tribune calling the House plan “political revenge at the expense of Florida students.”

Reich considers it unforgivable that McFarland would go along with House leadership on the proposal, and said even if leadership within his own party wanted to punish his constituents, he’d never entertain such a course. “This district doesn’t like divisive politics and doesn’t want someone who will sell out to a party like Fiona McFarland did,” he said.

And he’s starting to convince local Democratic leaders he could be the vessel for voters angry at decisions by DeSantis and the Legislature on an array of fronts, from education to a woman’s right to choose.

“From the first time I heard him speak, I was amazed at how sincere and what a good candidate he is,” said Christine Jennings, a former congressional candidate and one of the top Democratic fundraisers in Florida. She also previously served as Chair of the Sarasota Democratic Party, and has helped Reich in recent weeks connect with major donors on the Gulf Coast.

“He has the charisma. He has the sincerity,” Jennings said of Reich. “And that’s what you need.”

Reich has also spoken about the contest with Keith Fitzgerald, a New College Professor who previously represented the Sarasota area in the House for two terms. Fitzgerald said he initially viewed Reich as an extremely green candidate, but has been impressed as the educator proved to be a fast study on politics. “He has a lot to be optimistic about,” Fitzgerald said.

For one, the district — or rather similar configurations of it — has flipped before. No lawmaker since the dawn of term limits served a full eight years in the seat, and while Sarasota County seems as reliably Republican as ever, the area around the city of Sarasota always skewed more blue.

Fitzgerald said in the right political environment, Democrats can win. Good did in 2018, as Democrats reeled nationwide in Trump’s 2016 upset of Hillary Clinton. Fitzgerald won in the area in 2006, as the nation turned against former President George W. Bush and ended a 22-year Republican grip on control of Congress. School Board member Shirley Brown won a state House seat in 1996 as former President Bill Clinton battled Newt Gingrich’s House majority.

But is this year’s Midterm cycle the right atmosphere to not only win a state House seat but oust an incumbent? Party leaders remain hopeful that divisive Governor and Senate races on top of the ballot energize Florida Democrats and counter a waning political forecast for a red wave. Decisions like the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade have ratcheted up political enthusiasm among liberals, according to many pollsters.

Reich intends to capitalize on that.

“This election is about one thing: Freedom versus authoritarianism,” Reich said. “I am the freedom candidate. I am proudly pro-choice.”

McFarland, in contrast, supported a 15-week ban on abortions with no exceptions for rape or incest, he said. That voting record, along with votes on numerous culture war topics like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and legislation allowing outsiders to challenge what books appear in school libraries, doesn’t seem like that of a candidate representing swinging Sarasota.

Republicans remain unimpressed by Reich, particularly the highly negative tone of his campaign to date.

“Imagine you’re a parent of a student attending Sarasota High School, and instead of Mr. Reich focusing on your son or daughter’s education, he spends his days in the teacher’s breakroom and his nights on the couch obsessively trolling a female Navy veteran and one of the most respected representatives in Tallahassee,” said Max Goodman, a political consultant for McFarland.

Reich thinks the voters in HD 73 will be sympathetic to his pro-educator platform. The Aug. 23 election brought some heartbreak to Democrats and local educators when a conservative slate of School Board candidates endorsed by DeSantis swept countywide School Board races. But Reich notes that for two of the three races in the county, the Democratic candidate won in HD 73.

Lauren Kurnov, Assistant Vice President and Director of Student Success, and Nora Cietek, a 30-year educator, outperformed in the district even while losing respectively to Robyn Marinelli, also an educator, and Tim Enos, a former Sarasota School Police chief, in countywide votes.

Reich just signed on Kurnov’s campaign manager, Sarah Weiner, to run his campaign. Of course, the only conservative roster candidate to win the district, incumbent Bridget Ziegler, may have the profile closest to McFarland. But the fact that Democrats did well in the nonpartisan School Board races within HD 73 gives some hope they can get the base out for a partisan election in November.

Lack of backup

But if a candidate with a chance screams in the political wilderness and no one in the Capitol hears it, can he make a sound?

House Victory, Florida Democrats’ arm dedicated to House seats, remains focused this year on defending seats already held by Democrats as it fends off a potential Republican supermajority. Rep. Fentrice Driskell, incoming House Democratic Leader, told Florida Politics in the year that she was focused on retaining seats more than expanding the map.

“It’s not breaking news when I tell you that Democrats are facing significant headwinds,” she said.

She did not return calls about Reich’s race.

Supporters of McFarland say there’s good reason Reich can’t earn the notice of House Victory or other sources of support outside the immediate region.

“Apart from Mr. Reich’s cyberbullying addiction, the reason he has not and will not receive support from the Florida Democrat Party is because the last time they invested in a McFarland challenger they were bludgeoned by more than 9 points,” Goodman said, citing Buckman’s loss in 2020 and also mentioning Reich’s penchant for attacking McFarland on Twitter.

And it’s possible the district has become more friendly to Republicans than the 2020 performance suggests. As of the closing of voter registration books for the August Primary, the district served as home to 59,423 registered Republicans and 46,950 registered Democrats. That more-than-12,000 voter difference may not be Panhandle red, but in terms of close margins, HD 73 doesn’t make the top 10 out of Florida’s 120 House seats.

Goodman dismisses Reich’s attack on McFarland’s budget vote as well as a misunderstanding of the legislative process. That budget plan came before House and Senate negotiations even took place, and McFarland supported a budget in final passage that fully funded the district.

“Mr. Reich may be the only teacher running for office whose signature platform is opposing legislation that allocated $23.3 million (8.17% increase) to Sarasota schools and a $4.1 million hike in Sarasota teacher salaries,” Goodman said.

“These state funds are being used for mental health, student transportation, school safety and supplies for teachers. In the words of Sarasota High Principal David Jones, ‘every year of high school is precious,’ and these additional funds will help make sure our students and teachers have the necessary tools to succeed.”

Regardless, Reich’s entry to the race may simply have come too late to make much difference. He filed in May and sent out a formal announcement in June. He told Florida Politics this week he hoped to launch a political committee, but that move comes just two months ahead of a General Election.

But Reich is a teacher and a student of history and knows Florida has delivered surprises on Election Day before, and he hopes to deliver a surprise in November that warrants study itself someday.

Jacob Ogles

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 [email protected].

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