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Teresa Jacobs moving from Orange County Mayor’s office to School Board

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs got herself elected countywide chair of the Orange County School Board Tuesday night.

For years people have been asking Jacobs what her next act was after eight years of almost unchallenged dominance of the Orange County government, with expectations that she might seek statewide office or a congressional seat. She surprised everyone but her family and closest friends by declaring in April that what she really always wanted to do is work in education.

Tuesday night she took 52 percent of the vote in a four-way contest, easily defeating Orange County School Board Member Nancy Robbinson and two educators, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Robert Prater.

Jacobs victory, coming after just five months of campaigning, means there won’t be a runoff election in November.

She becomes just the second countywide chair of the School Board since the Florida Legislature created the position, at Orange County’s request, eight years ago. She will succeed outgoing Chair Bill Sublette.

Jerry Demings elected Mayor of Orange County

From the beginning, this was Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings’ race to lose, and he did not disappoint his supporters Tuesday, sweeping to an easy win as the next Mayor of Orange County in a three-way contest.

Demings, sheriff for 10 years, easily defeated Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke and businessman Rob Panepinto.

The only hope that either of those challengers had was that Demings might not top 50 percent of the vote in the three-way field, forcing a runoff election and allowing the second-place finisher another nine weeks to mount a challenge to the longtime front-runner.

It wasn’t close. Demings captured 61 percent of the vote Tuesday. Clarke, who ran a shoestring campaign but relied on his popularity, took 22 percent. Panepinto, once seen as the darling of the business community, was able to raise credible amounts of money but it bought little, and he finished with just 16 percent.

Though the office and the election officially are nonpartisan, Demings nonetheless is a well-known Democrat, and his opponents Republicans. Thus, he became the first Democrat to take the county’s top executive post since 2000 and opened the door to a possible Democratic takeover of the county government.

Demings, the first African-American police chief in the history of Orlando, and the first African-American sheriff in the history of the county, also became the first African-American Mayor of Orange County.

From the moment he entered the race 14 months ago, Demings had advantages of experience, name recognition, fundraising prowess, and most of the meaningful endorsements. He also happens to be married to a popular congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Val Demings.

Yet a series of debates this summer led some to think the race would go into overtime.

Rene Plasencia, Geraldine Thompson among winners in Central Florida House races

State Rep. Rene Plasencia easily put away a Republican primary challenge from the right from George Collins, former State Sen. Geraldine Thompson took a step in her political comeback attempt, and Democratic nominees were sorted out for two other Republican-held seats in Central Florida Tuesday.

Plasencia, a two-term Representative seeking to hold onto House District 50 covering east Orange County and northwest Brevard County, easily dispatched Collins for the second Republican primary season in a row Tuesday.

He gets Democrat Pam Dirschka in the Nov. 6 election.

Thompson, who served in both the Florida House and the Florida Senate before giving that seat up to run unsuccessfully for Congress in 2016, dispatched Margaret “Melanie” Gold in a close race for the Democratic nomination to run in House District 44, in southwest Orange County.

Thompson now gets a shot at Republican state Rep. Bobby Olszewski in November in a district that is slightly Republican but turning gradually purple.

Lawyer Tracey Kagan will be the Democratic nominee to run in House District 29 in Seminole County against incumbent state Rep. Scott Plakon.

Maitland City Councilwoman Joy Goff-Marcil is the Democratic nominee to run in House District 30 against Republican incumbent state Rep. Bob Cortes. That district covers south-central Seminole County and north-central Orange County.

Plasencia said he sided with his constituents interests, even when it meant bucking leadership in the Florida Legislature, and voters recognized that.

This was a rematch with Collins, who won the Brevard County portion of the district in 2016. Not this time. Plasencia took 65 percent in Brevard, and 62 percent in Orange.

“I think it was more the work that I’ve done over the last couple of years, and really listening to the voters, to my constituents, always being receptive to their needs, and just being approachable,” Plasencia said.

Thompson said of her victory Tuesday, “It tells us that people want experience. We’ve seen the candidates who come from the business world and think that legislative work is like a business. It isn’t. The voters overwhelmingly decided they want experience.”

Kagan defeated fellow lawyer Darryl Block in the HD 29 Democratic primary, 65 percent to 35 percent.

Goff-Marcil defeated two Democratic primary opponents, Clark Anderson and Brendan Ramirez, getting 52 percent of the vote in Orange County and 42 percent in Seminole County, while neither Anderson nor Ramirez topped 35 percent in either county.

Anthony Sabatini, Cynthia Brown emerge from HD 32 primary election

Three Republicans and two Democrats competed Tuesday for their party’s nomination to succeed former state Rep. Larry Metz, who gave up Lake County’s House District 32 in March to accept a judicial appointment from Gov. Rick Scott.

HD 32 has a hefty Republican lean, and the GOP fielded Shannon Elswick, Anthony Sabatini, and Monica L. Wofford to take over for Metz, who had held the district since it was redrawn ahead of the 2012 election cycle.

With all precincts reporting, Sabatini led the Republican field with 47 percent of the vote, followed by Elswick at 29 percent and Wofford at 24 percent.

Sabatini, a 29-year-old Eustis City Commissioner and commissioned officer in the Florida Army National Guard, lagged substantially in fundraising, though his name recognition led to an easy win in the three-way primary.

Elswick was the fundraising leader with $92,360 in outside cash and another $10,000 in candidate loans, while Wofford, a businesswoman and author who runs her own training and consulting firm, cleared $85,512 for her bid. In the end, that didn’t matter.

All three Republicans vying for the seat had the second-from-the-top rating from the National Rifle Association, an “AQ,” and an “A” rating from anti-abortion group Florida Right to Life backing up their conservative credentials, with Sabatini’s prior experience in elected office serving as a key advantage over his primary rivals.

Sabatini is now nearly certain to succeed Metz — HD 32 is a Republican stronghold that went plus-15 for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Still, there will be an election on Nov. 6, and while a “blue wave” isn’t likely to overcome the seawall of HD 32, two Democrats competed for the chance to give Lake County’s voters an option in the general.

Cynthia Brown a Groveland rancher and the former president of the American Shipbuilding Association, ran on a “Lake County” first platform and it paid off. With all precincts reporting, she held a dominant 65-35 percent lead over her lone competitor, Sheryl Needle Cohn, a Clermont author and playwright who works as a special needs educator at Groveland Elementary School.

Unlike the Republican side, the better funded candidate took the prize in the Democratic primary, though the amounts in play were much lower. Brown collected $15,590 from donors and staked her campaign with a $32,000 candidate loan. Cohn, meanwhile, raised $3,535 including a small amount of self-funding.

With the title card set for November, what remains to be seen is whether HD 32 Republicans flex their 10,000-voter registration advantage on Election Day, or Democrats in the district over-perform to show support for their first state House candidate since HD 32 was created.

Darren Soto vanquishes Alan Grayson in CD 9

Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto has put himself on track for re-election with a surprisingly easy victory Tuesday night in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 9th Congressional District, stymying the comeback attempt by his predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson.

Soto, a former Florida Senator who won a trip to Congress in 2016 after Grayson decided to run for U.S. Senate, is seeking the chance to establish himself as a full force on his own for the district, not just as the guy who stepped into Congress when Grayson stepped out. [Grayson lost the Democratic primary for Senate in August 2016.]

The election campaigns appeared close and for a long time, it appeared that Grayson, with his deep roots in the nation’s progressive community, would have the edge. But Soto’s ground game and a huge assistance from an independent political action committee, the George Soros-funded Latino Victory Fund offered a big late boost. Waves of Spanish-language advertising funded by the PAC and key endorsements from Puerto Rican leaders helped spur as big a Hispanic turnout as Soto, of Puerto RIcan heritage, could have hoped for.

But Tuesday it turned into a landslide, burying Grayson in all three counties of CD 9.

With almost all returns in, Soto was taking 67 percent of the vote in Grayson’s home county of Orange, 67 percent in Soto’s home county of Osceola, and 63 percent in Polk County. Overall, Soto had 64 percent to Grayson’s 34 percent. In those early returns, Soto was building a lead of more than 13,000 votes.

Those early results are indicating that Grayson’s political comeback attempt has been a dud.

Soto’s first two years have established him as a strong voice on immigration reform, Puerto Rican concerns, and environmental protection causes, especially those involving Florida’s water issues. He has won support from a variety of progressive groups representing causes ranging from women’s rights to gun law reforms.

Grayson is a nationally known progressive lion who had been a poster-child for the party’s left wing: someone who fashioned himself as the “Congressman with Guts.” Yet he found his strongest support, including financial support, among liberals in such places as Washington, New York, and California. Soto had locked up most of the Florida Democratic Party leaders and organizations.

The pair fought through a bruising primary campaign with several face-to-face debates and other forums. Grayson repeatedly attacked Soto, charging that he has been less effective in Congress than Grayson himself had been. Soto fought back, sometimes alluding to Grayson’s knack for the outrageous, while portraying himself as both effective and more stable.

On Tuesday Grayson found that his national reputation doesn’t mean much to the more moderate voters in his old district covering Osceola County, south Orange County, and east Polk County.

Another disappointed candidate in Tuesday’s primary might be the Republican nominee, Wayne Liebnitzky. His campaign has been quietly preferring the prospect of a Nov. 6 election against Grayson, who they felt was much more vulnerable than Soto in the fight for independent voters. Either way, Liebniytzky starts the fall campaign as a clear underdog in a district that gives Democrats a solid advantage in voter registration, and an election season in which both Democrats were raising far more money than he.

Soto-Liebnitzky will be a rematch of 2016, when Soto won 57-43.

The district also is home to Central Florida’s biggest Puerto Rican community, and Soto, a descendant of Puerto Rican migrants, counts himself as a member of that community.  That distinction played well in his 2016 election when he first defeated Grayson’s wife, Dena Grayson, and Grayson’s former aide Susannah Randolph in a Democratic primary that broke Puerto Rican voters Soto’s way, and then against Liebnitzky.

That made Soto the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from Florida, a source of enormous pride for himself and for the community that elected him. But there always was that caveat that he didn’t have to defeat Alan Grayson to get there, for Grayson claimed his own strong connections within the Puerto Rican community.

Now Soto can claim the undisputed championship of the district.

Mike Miller wins, setting up match with Democrat Stephanie Murphy in CD 7

State Rep. Mike Miller won a tough, three-way Republican primary Tuesday in Florida’s 7th Congressional District in convincing fashion for the right to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in an election battle over a region that Republicans owned for decades but is now trending blue.

Miller, a two-term state representative from Winter Park, had much less difficulty than even his optimistic supporters might have hoped for in dispatching Sanford businessman Scott Sturgill and Vennia Francois of Orlando for the Republican nomination. Meanwhile, Murphy easily brushed aside a challenge from the left brought by progressive activist Chardo Richardson in the Democratic primary.

“It’s a validation of everything I’ve been talking about with constituents for a year and a half,” Miller said Tuesday night. “I’ve been talking about values, and the things I learned in the Florida House and learned from people like Sen. Connie Mack, who I worked with, and they are very important for the people of Central Florida.”

“I spoke from the heart and talked about the direction I see our country going in and it worked,” Miller added.

The seat, representing Seminole County and north and central Orange County, is one that national and state Republicans desperately wanted to win back after Murphy shocked many by flipping it from longtime Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. John Mica in the 2016 election. The Republican organizations have kept their distances during the contested Republican primary but can be expected to step in with millions of dollars to back Miller or oppose Murphy.

With early returns and most districts already reporting, Miller has built an insurmountable lead on Sturgill with Francois far back in both counties. Miller is taking 64 percent in his home county of Orange, and 49 percent in Seminole with Sturgill taking only 33 percent of early returns in his home county, Seminole and only 20 percent in Miller’s. Francois was picking up 15 percent of the Orange vote and 17 percent of the Seminole vote.

Surprising no one, Murphy easily is dispatching Richardson, who brought a nationally-focused young progressives campaign to Central Florida but no money and very little organization to take on a well-funded, well-organized incumbent congresswoman backed by all mainstream Democrats.

But state and national Democrats, too, see this race as a priority. Democratic groups already are lining up to support Murphy and oppose Miller in big and expensive ways.

While Miller touted himself as a rock-solid conservative, Sturgill actually ran to his right, seeking to be the candidate most associated with President Donald Trump in the contest. But Seminole County, and to a greater degree the CD 7 portions of Orange County, have a more moderate view than even a few years ago when Mica, himself something of a moderate, owned the district.

Top Republican while trying to vote: ‘That’s my signature!’

Orange County Republican Party Chair Charles Hart got a taste of frustration some voters might experience trying to authenticate their identities by signing electronic tablets in polling places.

Hart said that when he tried to sign in Tuesday at a voting station in Windermere, he nearly got rejected, based on a poll worker’s assessment that his signature requesting a ballot didn’t look like, well, his signature.

Now Hart is sending warnings to other voters in Orange County, particularly Republicans: If they run into the same problem, Orange County’s Grand Old Party wants to hear about it and has lawyers ready to get involved if needed.

If the signature on the electronic screen doesn’t look right, voters always get the chance to try again, and so did Hart.

He figured maybe the tilt of the screen messed up his writing. Or maybe the stylus he signed with didn’t press quite right. So he cleared the screen and signed again. Poll workers still weren’t convinced though, he said. He offered his driver’s license, with his signature on it, and a picture of Charles Hart.

“They literally said, ‘I don’t know about this one,'” Hart recalled Tuesday afternoon. “They actually had another lady come over to look. And they were like, ‘Well, can you do it again?’

“I said, ‘No! That’s my signature!'” Hart recalled.

The experience has left him wondering how even a fully trained poll worker might become expert enough in comparing signatures to potentially stop people from voting.

Hart’s signature is pretty distinctive, starting with a swooping “C-h” and ending with an “II” as in “Charles Hart the Second.” He said he has not changed it since high school.

“They kept hemming and hawing, and I said, ‘I want a provisional ballot.’ And at that point they were like, ‘Well, I guess the “C-h” looks the same.'”

So he got to vote.

Shortly afterward, though, Hart began sending out warning messages on social media, with, “URGENT! ATTENTION!”, telling followers what happened to him; and advising that if it happens to them, first they should be tough and demand their rights to vote, and then he wants them to contact the Republican Party.

“I’m urging them to,” Hart said. “Every vote counts.”

“Do not let bureaucrats tell you YOU CANNOT VOTE!” Hart wrote, adding, “do not think it cannot happen to you because it did to me…”

Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles said disputes over signatures are always possible when someone’s requesting a ballot. But he said they do not come up very often, and certainly no more often with the electronic signature tablets in use in recent years than back in the days of paper-and-pen sign-ins. Cowles said there are several layers of checks that should allow voters to prove themselves, including the photo ID, ultimately leading to the prospect of a provisional ballot if poll workers remain unconvinced.

Cowles expressed concern, though, to hear that Hart had to go through several steps, and said he would look into the incident.

“I’m glad to hear they gave him his ballot; that’s the good news,” Cowles said.

Central Florida seeing high voter turnout for primary elections

Voting rates are “blowing past” previous years’ totals in Central Florida’s Orange and Seminole counties as big early-voting and mail-voting pushes are giving way to solid election day turnouts.

That’s combined with a report from Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner that there appear to be no major issues statewide.

“Today is Florida’s Primary Election and I am pleased to report that all polls are open statewide and voters are currently casting ballots in 5,881 precincts,” Detzner said in a written statement. “Polls are open until 7 p.m. and voters in line at 7 p.m. will be able to cast a ballot. Division of Elections staff are communicating with each county Supervisor of Elections throughout the day and we stand ready to provide any needed assistance.”

In Orange County, the total voter turnout by mid-morning Tuesday had already surpassed the primary turnout of 2014, the last gubernatorial election year, and was about to top the primary voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election. It was possibly heading toward 20 percent.

“It’s going well. … We’ve obviously blown past all our numbers of 2014, and we’re now zeroing in on surpassing our 2016 numbers,” said Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles.

It was going even better in Seminole County, where Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel said he’s looking at a possible 25 percent overall turnout.

“Smooth, so far. … For this election, for a primary election in a gubernatorial year, we’re much higher than before,” Ertel said. “Not close to what we’re going to get in November, but certainly much higher than in other elections we’ve had like this.”

Both counties have grown rapidly so the records of raw numbers for gubernatorial primary voters are falling quickly, and turnout percentages also are swamping recent years. In 2014 Orange County’s primary turnout was 16.1 percent, and in 2016 for the presidential primary it was 18.8. By mid-morning 17.3 percent of the county’s 772,000 voters had cast ballots.

In Seminole, early-voting, mail voting and election day voting all had beaten or were trending to beat previous marks, Ertel said. Overall, by mid-morning, the total turnout already was around 20 percent, compared with 17.9 percent in 2014.

Ertel also noted another trend showing up this year: the county’s slow transformation from a strong Republican area to one far more balanced. In early voting, among about 16,000 votes, there were exactly three more Republican ballots cast than Democratic ballots, he said.

Good weather, so far, is helping turnout statewide.

But, Cowles cautioned, “This is Florida. This is August. What do the thunderstorms have in store this afternoon?”

In Central Florida’s last minute campaigning, Jerry Demings predicting victory

Candidates up at dawn, waving signs on street corners, still planting campaign signs, trying to get through the day to their cheers-or-tears parties tonight.

Primary Election Day.

Orange County could elect a new mayor — and Jerry Demings is predicting a win — and a new chair of the Orange County School Board along with at least four new School Board members, as well as three or four new Orange County commissioners.

Demings’ optimism is matched by confidence from his opponents that Demings won’t get the outright majority of votes he will need to be elected Tuesday. In that scenario, and in similar scenarios for the other multicandidate, nonpartisan races determining Orange County’s leadership, there would be runoff elections on Nov. 6.

This could be the day that U.S. Rep. Darren Soto‘s congressional career ends, or it could be when his Democratic primary rival former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson finds out the times have moved past when his bombastic personality was embraced by Florida’s 9th Congressional District voters.

It will certainly be the day in which Republicans decide who they want, most likley state Rep. Mike Miller or Scott Sturgill, to send to take on incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in Florida’s 7th Congerssional Distirct; who Florida House District 44 Democratic voters in west Orange County want, former state Sen. Geraldine Thompson or activist Melanie Gold, to send against Republican state Rep. Bobby Olszewski; and who Republican voters want, Mikaela Nix or Stockton Reeves VI, to go up against Democrat Anna Eskamani for the open seat for Florida House District 47.

Also on the line: Republican state Rep. Rene Plasencia‘s re-election bid in the east-Orange and north-Brevard counties’ House District 50 against primary challenger George Collins; northeast Brevard County voters’ choice, Henry Parrish or Tyler Sirois, for a Republican to run for state Rep. Tom Goodson‘s old seat in the Republican-rich House District 51.

That’s why candidates such as Orange County School Board chair candidate Nancy Robbinson, who has been on the board since 2008, was making last-minute runs early Tuesday to pick up and distribute more yards signs as last-minute opportunities arose, in her battle with Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, and educators Robert Prater and Matthew Fitzpatrick.

That’s why Soto is planning an ambitious last-day of campaigning that has 17 stops on his schedule for Tuesday, visiting voting locations in CD 9’s areas in Polk and Osceola counties in a whirlwind of 20-minute visits wih voters, before the day ends with his watch party in Kissimmee.

That’s why he and most other candidates such as Orange County mayoral frontrunner Orange County Sheriff Demings and his opponents Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke and businessman Rob Panepinto were out waving signs and meeting with voters as the sun rose Tuesday.

Demings tipped his cap to voters but also predicted victory.

“We’ve done what we could do to ensure victory today but the people will decide on who will be the next Orange County Mayor,” Demings said. “Based on immediate feedback we’re receiving from the various polling sites, victory is well at hand.”

But Clarke and Panepinto have their own optimism, not necessarily for a win Tuesday, but for at least not losing on Tuesday.

“We’re sure we’re going to still be standing tonight,” Clarke said. “We’re confident we’ll be there for a run-off. We have a lot of good feeling out there. But we shall see.”

Panepinto said the voters he and his campaign are hearing from are filling him with confidence that the large undecided pool showing up in polls until recently is finally engaging and breaking his way, especially after the debates and the controversy this month about school safety resource officers.

“We’ve seen some momentum our way,” Panepinto said. “The nice thing about a democracy is, everybody gets to vote and the scorecard will come out tonight.”

They shall see tonight, as Clarke and his campaign hold their watch party at the Gallery At Mills Park in Orlando’s Mills 50 District, Demings holds his at the Florida Hotel and Conference Center’s Heroes Ballroom, and Panepinto holds his at The Brewstillery in Winter Park.

Among others, Soto’s party is planned for the Ramada Gateway Hotel in Kissimmee. Miller’s is set for Miller’s Ale House on Lee Road in Winter Park. Robbinson’s will be at the LOCAL Bar & Grill in College Park.

Bill Nelson endorses Jerry Demings in Orange mayoral race

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has endorsed Jerry Demings to become Orange County’s next Mayor, Demings campaign announced.

Demings, the Orange County Sheriff, is facing businessman Rob Panepinto and Orange County Commissioner Pete Clarke in the non-partisan election Tuesday.

“Jerry Demings is a trusted, respected leader who has spent his career keeping the people of Central Florida safe as a Sheriff and as Orlando Police Chief,” Nelson stated in a news release issued by Demings campaign. “During his decades of service, Sheriff Demings has built coalitions to strengthen our community.”

Nelson’s endorsement comes just before Tuesday’s election. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will advance to a Nov. 6 election showdown.

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