By Joel Engelhardt
Ron DeSantis reached a plateau in Palm Beach County on Nov. 8 that no Republican candidate for governor had reached in 36 years: He tallied more votes than the Democrat.
And on his coattails rode Republicans Peggy Gossett-Seidman to victory over Andy Thomson for a Boca Raton-centered state House seat, and Marci Woodward, a political novice, over County Mayor Robert Weinroth for a County Commission seat.
“Money didn’t matter and it didn’t matter how much you spent,” said campaign consultant Rick Asnani, who worked on both the Thomson and Weinroth campaigns. “Endorsements didn’t matter. Any type of discussion around experience didn’t matter. This was all driven around one very simple thing, did you have an ‘R’ next to your name?”
And much of that was because of the man at the top of the ticket, said Sid Dinerstein, a former chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party.
“The No. 1 reason was Ron DeSantis,” he said. “We never had an election, either party, where they won the state by 1.5 million votes. You have to start with the uniqueness of this political figure.”
Thomson, who had to resign his seat on the Boca Raton City Council to run, faced a deluge of TV attack ads paid for by the Florida House Republican Campaign Committee to pound home the message that he raised taxes and was soft on immigration and crime.
“They treated him the way they would any other Democrat,” Asnani said. “They tied him to Joe Biden. ‘He’s a liberal. He’s a Democrat. The other person is not’ and they won.”
Thomson ran attack ads as well, Gossett-Seidman said, a point Thomson disputed.
While acknowledging the importance of the DeSantis effect, Gossett-Seidman said voters were driven by concerns about the economy, a refrain she heard as she walked the district, which includes Highland Beach, Boca Raton and much of west Boca.
“Everywhere we went, everyone is worried about the economy, prices, jobs,” said Gossett-Seidman, who served four years on the Highland Beach Town Commission and is the first former Highland Beach commissioner to serve in the Florida House. “It was totally overwhelming. They want a normalcy to return, in terms of the economy, having freedoms — the free and open Florida.”
But the key to her victory, by 51.7% to 48.3%, was the enthusiasm for DeSantis that drew Republicans to the polls and the apathy that kept Democrats away, Thomson said. He added that he pulled in more votes in his district than Charlie Crist, who lost to DeSantis by a margin of about 3-to-2 statewide.
Nearly a clean sweep
Almost all of the Republican candidates at the top of the ticket scored wins in Palm Beach County, a virtually unprecedented result, thwarted only by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s falling just 2,124 votes short of Val Demings, out of 542,852 cast.
The only time since 1978 that a Republican for governor scored higher than the Democrat in Palm Beach County came in 1986, when Bob Martinez attained 53.8% of the vote to Steve Pajcic’s 46.2%.
Three times in the 1980s Palm Beach County went Republican for president — twice for Ronald Reagan and once for George Bush — but that never happened again.
On Nov. 8, DeSantis won the county with 51.2% of the vote to 48.3% for Crist.
Democrats still have a decided registration advantage in Palm Beach County over Republicans: 40% to 29%.
“Democrats had no enthusiasm and stayed home,” Asnani said. “If you didn’t have a seat that had at least a 10- to 14-point [partisan] advantage, you had no chance to win.”
For example, Democrat Lois Frankel held on to her South County congressional seat, 55% to 45%, over Dan Franzese. Two years earlier, in a similarly Democratic-leaning district, she won 59% to 39%.
Other local races
Democratic state Rep. Joe Casello, running in a solid Democratic House district that includes Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, held off challenger Keith Feit, 55% to 45%. State Sen. Bobby Powell, a Democrat in a district that includes the barrier islands north of the Boynton Inlet, won 55.7% of the vote in defeating Eric Ankner.
Likewise, Democratic state Sen. Lori Berman got 55% of the vote in defeating Republican Steve Byers in District 26, which runs along the coast from Glades Road to the Boynton Inlet.
But Democratic state Sen. Tina Polsky lost Palm Beach County, 52.6% to 47.4%, winning re-election on the strength of her showing in Broward County, which she carried with 59% of the vote.
Republican Mike Caruso won his new House district, which starts north of the Boynton Inlet and runs up to Palm Beach Gardens, defeating Sienna Osta 59% to 41%.
New county commissioners
But for Weinroth, a former Boca Raton City Council member, and Michelle McGovern, a one-time aide to former Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the governor’s coattails proved too much even though their County Commission opponents had no big money infusion for TV ads.
Taking over for Weinroth in a South County district that includes all the barrier islands south of South Palm Beach will be Woodward, a Boca Raton resident who had never run for office before. She won with 51.8% of the vote.
Hailing her election as “proof that a citizen does have a place in local government,” Woodward took the oath of office Nov. 22. She acknowledged the learning she needs to do and pledged “to represent you the way I want to be represented myself.”
Republican Sara Baxter defeated McGovern by a similar margin in the West County district held for eight years by Democrat Melissa McKinlay, who was term-limited from running again.
Incumbent Gregg Weiss, a Democrat, won re-election with 56% of the vote, giving Democrats a reduced 4-3 majority on the new commission. He was appointed to the county’s ceremonial mayor post by his colleagues on Nov. 22.
While Woodward didn’t respond to a request for an interview, her website describes several key moments in her life, particularly her difficult efforts to conceive after marrying Michael, her high school sweetheart. They graduated in the 1990s from the University of South Carolina-Aiken before moving to South Florida in 2004.
It was here that fertility treatments left her facing years of medical issues, now resolved, she wrote.
With the coronavirus pandemic underway in 2020, she wrote, she became aware of the power of the County Commission. She wondered how business could survive the closures and limitations.
“But then came the real question: Who was making these rules?” she wrote. “Who were these new Task Force Officers and to whom did they report? And why, did it seem, the rules that were made ‘for our well-being’ were not being adhered to by those who we elected to represent us?
“They made the rules, but WE suffered.”
When she felt like the county didn’t respond to her questions and she learned Weinroth was running unopposed, she entered the race, raising $48,700, including $16,000 from the county Republican Party and $8,000 of her own money.
Weinroth, who raised $416,000, cited his accomplishments after four years on the commission and four years on the Boca council, but said there was no way to get that across to voters intent on party support.
“They looked at the ‘R’ and the ‘D’ and decided to vote ‘R,’” he said, pointing out that he got 6,000 fewer votes in this election than his previous one, “which means to me the Democrats stayed home.”
As for the two newcomers to the County Commission, he pointed out that it’s not just a one-issue job.
“It’s not just a pandemic or voter integrity. It’s a job with multiple issues thrown at you,” Weinroth said. “I hope they take a breath and learn how our county runs, because they are on the board of directors now for all of Palm Beach County.”