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DeSantis flexes influence with ‘anti-woke’ school board victories

The Florida governor waded into the usually nonpartisan races, which have turned increasingly contentious

A DeSantis supporter interacts with protesters outside the Metro-Dade Firefighters Local 1403, where the governor spoke at an event for school board candidates he endorsed in Doral, Fla., on Aug. 21. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/AP)

MIAMI — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis saw big wins Tuesday night in nearly two dozen school board races where he endorsed conservative candidates backing his education agenda, underscoring his influence as he uses local races to build his voter base and showcase his national platform.

After a summer of testy campaigns that centered around race, LGBTQ rights, school textbooks and even abortion, at least 20 of the 30 DeSantis-backed school board candidates won their races in Tuesday’s primary. Conservatives say they now have new majorities on school boards in Miami-Dade, Duval, Sarasota and Brevard counties, potentially reshaping policies for more than half a million students and thousands of teachers.

Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Miami-based Christian Family Coalition, a conservative political advocacy group, likened DeSantis to “a kingmaker” in inspiring voters to the polls — even against well-known incumbents. In Miami-Dade, one of the two candidates he endorsed in two heavily Cuban American communities ousted a Republican who had been on the county school board for 24 years.

“Just as Trump is doing nationwide, DeSantis is doing in Florida,” Verdugo said, comparing DeSantis to the former president, who has been flexing his political influence in this year’s Republican primaries — with mixed results.

The Republican governor has seized on parental rights as a key part of his messaging on education as he gears up for a reelection race against U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D), and potentially a 2024 presidential bid. Some Florida Democrats said Wednesday the party must quickly figure out how it can more effectively challenge DeSantis, who they fear is succeeding in building his political brand by turning nonpartisan local races into America’s latest ideological battlefield.

“We have to focus on these local races,” said Max Frost, the 25-year-old liberal activist who was elected Tuesday as the Democratic nominee for an Orlando-area congressional seat. “DeSantis is someone who worries me more than Trump because if you look at what he’s done here, he’s going out and stumping for these school board candidates. … He’s building power.”

In a sign of how DeSantis is energizing Florida Republicans, more than 100,000 registered Republicans voted Tuesday compared with Democrats — even though both DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) were running unopposed in the primary.

Yet despite DeSantis’s success in helping some school board candidates, there were also signs that the governor’s platform focused on weeding out “anti-woke” ideas from schools faces resistance in key pockets of the state.

Joe Saunders, senior political director for Equality Florida, a group that advocates for LGBTQ rights, said more moderate candidates backed by his organization defeated candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty, a conservative parental rights group, in more than two dozen school board races. Saunders said victories in the Tampa and Orlando regions were a sign that there are limits to conservatives’ political appeal.

“When voters were given a choice, between the extremism of Moms for Liberty and a pro-equality candidate, a majority of the time voters still chose that pro-equality candidate,” he said.

Some voters, like Jose Perez in Miami, said they were put off by DeSantis’s decision to wade so heavily into a nonpartisan school board race. In the run-up to the election, Perez said he was inundated with negative — and often false — advertisements including accusing Marta Perez, the longtime incumbent up against DeSantis’s candidate, of supporting “transgender ideology.”

“I like DeSantis, but why is he spending so much political capital, and money, going after a fellow Republican?” asked Jose Perez, who was wearing a “Reagan-Bush” hat and is not related to Marta. “I and a lot of people are scratching our heads. Why is he doing this?”

In Alachua County, which includes the University of Florida in Gainesville, voters even elected a woman who had been removed from the board by DeSantis a year earlier when reports surfaced she lived just 300 feet outside the district’s boundaries. Diyonne McGraw defeated the minister whom DeSantis had appointed to replace her.

“People continue to play politics, but this is about the children,” McGraw said. “It’s also about democracy.”

Susan MacManus, a Florida political analyst and professor emerita at the University of South Florida, said DeSantis’s endorsements in local races highlight the growing skill of his political organization, providing the campaign with a test run of its November get-out-the-vote operation.

“He’s very savvy at figuring out how to get out votes,” MacManus said. “Between the end of early voting and Election Day, he has these huge news conferences to show his support for these candidates he selected. At that point, a lot of Republicans had yet to vote, and maybe they hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to school board races. But suddenly he’s in town saying, ‘These are my people, we need this.’ He’s very savvy in understanding the timing of pushing political issues.”

The conservative victories, several of which occurred in counties that have been highly competitive in statewide elections, come as Democrats start rallying behind Crist as the Democratic nominee to take on DeSantis.

Within minutes of Crist winning the nomination, both he and DeSantis set the tone for a divisive contest that is expected to further political and cultural divisions within the state. The battle over school and health-care issues is expected to remain at the forefront in the general election campaign.

“Our state is worth fighting for,” DeSantis told his supporters in Miami on Tuesday night. “I am calling on all Floridians to put on the full armor of God as we will fight tooth and nail to protect Florida.”

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday morning, Crist suggested he doesn’t need or want the votes of those who support DeSantis. Crist is expected to shape his platform around countering DeSantis’s notion of “freedom” — arguing that it’s only freedom for some in a state with soaring housing costs and battles over topics like race and gender identity.

“Those who support the governor should stay with him and vote for him,” said Crist, as he raised his voice and swung his hand. “I don’t want your vote. If you have that hate in your heart, keep it there.”

During the final days of the campaign, several of the school board races turned especially contentious. In Sarasota, some outside groups sent out mailers accusing left-leaning candidates of being “Planned Parenthood baby killers” and supporting “pornography in schools.” The DeSantis-endorsed candidates swept three school board races to secure a 4-to-1 conservative majority. Lisa Schurr, a Sarasota education activist, said Democrats were simply outvoted on Tuesday.

“The bottom line is there are 150,000 of them, and 100,000 of us,” said Schurr, a Democrat. “We didn’t get out the vote, and they had a much better ground game.”

But Bridget Ziegler, an incumbent Sarasota County school board member who was reelected Tuesday and helped organize the conservative slate, said the election results are a sign of the parental rights movement’s growing strength. Ziegler, a close political ally of DeSantis, said schools have become too “woke” and parents need to have more control over school lesson plans and textbooks.

“This is how you preserve our republic,” said Ziegler, who also helped launch Moms for Liberty. “So I think it is very important for people across the country to see what happened in Florida, and this will have a ripple effect in a lot of different states where people are already frustrated.”

There was another notable conservative victory in Sarasota on Tuesday night: Voters also elected three candidates to the board of the county’s flagship hospital who had campaigned as skeptics of the coronavirus vaccine and some other scientifically based medical policies. The victories were a major boost for the growing “medical freedom” movement, which argues patients should have more control over their medical decisions.

In Miami-Dade, Verdugo, of the Christian Family Coalition, said conservatives became angry with incumbent Marta Perez in 2021, after she supported an extension of classroom mask policies to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The final straw for many conservatives came last year, he said, after she voted to designate October as “LGBTQ History Month.” Perez did not return calls seeking comment.

“Marta is someone who is more of a Bush Republican, a moderate, and the ground has shifted and the times have changed,” Verdugo said.

In Jacksonville, April Carney won a Duval County School Board seat after DeSantis endorsed her. Carney was also supported by Moms for Liberty, and she appeared on Fox News and Stephen K. Bannon’s podcasts in the weeks leading up to the election.

Duval County was at the center of school district fights over mask mandates and more recently over how to implement DeSantis’s new parental rights laws. With Carney’s victory, conservatives now have a 4-3 majority on the board.

Katie Hathway, a Jacksonville mother who campaigned for Carney’s opponent, said the results on Tuesday have left her rattled and fearful about the future of public education in Florida.

“I’ve literally been crying since last night,” Hathaway said. “I’m beyond disappointed. I’m also terrified.”

Hathaway and others opposed to DeSantis’s preferred school board candidates have started a group in Jacksonville called Public School Defenders to organize against policies they see as harmful, including banning books. She is also turning her focus to the November election, hoping voters upset over the governor’s role in local education races will turn up in big numbers for his Democratic challenger.

“I think this election really opened a lot of people’s eyes,” she said.

Ziegler, meanwhile, said it’s precisely DeSantis’s strong opinions on polarizing issues like how sex education and racial inequality are taught in the classroom that she believes will draw his supporters to the polls in November.

“Ron DeSantis is straightforward. He takes on issues that he believes are important,” Ziegler said. “And he knows what he is fighting for.”

David Weigel contributed to this report.

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Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.