Ahead of a bus tour of pivotal districts across Florida, Senate Democrats say District 3 Republican candidate Corey Simon doesn’t appear enough in the North Florida community.
Simon, a former Florida State University football star who served as CEO of Volunteer Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis, has a decent chance at unseating Democratic Sen. Loranne Ausley in what is one of the most contentious races of the Florida Senate.
Ausley was already considered a vulnerable incumbent, but redistricting and current political momentum across the nation and Florida have led some observers to say Simon holds the advantage in SD 3, which is centered on Tallahassee.
In defense of Ausley and four other Democrats who the party believes are key to minimizing Republicans’ legislative power, Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book and Sen. Jason Pizzo plan to reach voters and communities with a tour targeting those seats. It’s an effort they say Simon doesn’t make, despite his billboards and video advertising in the region.
Local media in Tallahassee have noted their difficulty in reaching Simon during the campaign. Earlier this month, Simon and Senate Republicans ran a full-page ad in the Tallahassee Democrat criticizing the paper and the League of Women Voters and pulling out of a debate that was to be hosted by the pair. The ad called the debate “a liberal farce.”
NAACP Tallahassee Branch President Mutaqee Akbar on Wednesday criticized Simon, an African American man, for ghosting his organization and other Black organizations at a candidate forum to which he had confirmed his attendance.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Book said it’s part of a pattern Democrats hear from the community about Simon. Ausley, who has represented parts of North Florida in the Legislature for 14 of the last 22 years, has been present all along, Book said.
“He doesn’t even show up. The president of the NAACP called him out on this last week. You’ve got to show up,” Book said. “How are you going to be a Senator for an area and not even show for the huddle?”
Senate Republican leadership immediately endorsed Simon upon the announcement of his candidacy, made the week of the qualification deadline. DeSantis, who appointed him as head of the state’s volunteer coordinating body two years ago, endorsed him the next day. Simon did not face a Republican Primary challenger, as the other Republican candidate did not qualify to run.
Pizzo said some of the GOP Senate candidates, like Simon, are DeSantis’ candidates, not that of Republican voters.
“Loranne is not running against somebody that was organically picked by the Republicans,” Pizzo said. “These were put in and placed in by the Governor. So unless he’s going to be writing massive checks, continuing to write massive checks (to get) some of these candidates through, we’ve put ourselves in good position.”
However, many consider Simon — as Black man and a familiar face as an FSU All-American and national champion and for his career in the National Football League — to be an ideal candidate for the GOP. His community volunteerism and his stated willingness to think independently of Senate Republicans, which he noted in a debate this month when discussing the lack of exception for rape and incest in Florida’s abortion restrictions, could also be beneficial.
Democrats have faced controversy of their own in SD 3. A campaign effort run by Book ran a highly publicized mail advertisement in the district that put depictions of children and Simon on shooting targets while criticizing Simon and Republicans’ positions on gun control.
Republicans and at least one leader in Tallahassee’s Black community, Rev. R.B. Holmes, denounced the ad as potentially racist. Other reactions have called it insensitive to surround young children with bullet holes in an ad delivered to voters’ mailboxes.
While Ausley said she did not prefer the tactics during her debate with Simon, Book and the committee, Senate Victory, stand by the mailer.
“Let’s be very clear about who puts the target on the backs of children: Republicans,” Book said. “Any Republican in this Legislature has said they’re ready to do open carry, they’re ready to do anything to lax and create more lax gun laws. Republicans, the extreme GOP, are the ones who put the targets on the backs of children.”
“Let’s not feign how over-the-top ridiculous a piece of mail is,” she continued. “Let’s talk about the policies that they want to bring forward that puts the targets on the backs of children and makes them unsafe.”
On Simon’s visibility in the North Florida community, Book also shared her possibly controversial idea for another advertising campaign.
“I wanted to put wanted posters all over town, but I was told that that’s probably not the best idea,” Book said.
In his Facebook post criticizing Simon for skipping the forum, Akbar said the candidate also ghosted Black Greek organizations and Capital Outlook, a Black publication in Tallahassee.
“He and his supporters, whom I respect a great deal, argue we should support him as a Black man who happens to be a Republican because we need someone who looks like us, grew up poor, and is from our community, in the room to speak up for us. Note that this is the same Republican Party in the state of Florida who has made laws that intentionally targeted Black people and other marginalized communities,” Akbar wrote.
“My question is, how can we expect you to speak up for us if you win if you don’t show up to hear from us or allow us to hear from you (other than alllllll the mail we get) when you’re running?”
In a statement to Florida Politics, Simon campaign spokesperson Erin Isaac said Democrats are right to be concerned that Simon is making inroads in North Florida. She pegged Ausley as supporting “abortions without limits, boys in girls’ sports and taxpayer-funded sex changes for minors” and adopting President Joe Biden and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist’s agenda.
“With out-of-touch nonsense like this, Lauren Book and Loranne Ausley are going to need a hell of a lot more than a shooting target and a wanted poster to take out Corey Simon,” Isaac said.
SD 3 has been so hard-fought in part because of this year’s redistricting, which forced the district to expand into more rural land because of the region’s slow growth compared to the rest of the state.
With the district’s expansion into a total of 13 counties, geographically the largest in the state, it grew from a seat that voted for President Joe Biden by 9 percentage points in 2020 into one he would have carried by only 3 points. That, plus Ausley’s underperformance as compared to Biden that cycle and the recent reversal of Democrats’ fortunes in the polls, puts Ausley’s seat on the line.
Pizzo told reporters the margin of victory could be within hundreds of votes. And if Simon wins, it could give Republicans a three-fifths majority or even a supermajority, two major thresholds in the Florida Senate.
“This is a critical time because, if the Republicans get to a supermajority, there are so many things in the rules and the procedure in the Legislature that don’t allow us to even engage procedurally, to engage in a number of things, whether it’s amendments and arguments and limiting debate on critical issues and controversial issues that we’ve seen.”
SD 3 covers Dixie, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Suwannee, Taylor and Wakulla counties.