TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Jacqueline Rosario, a school board member in Indian River County in Florida, was recently chatting with a cashier at an ice cream shop when she mentioned she was running for reelection.
A staunch supporter of school choice and parental rights, Rosario earned the backing of Gov. Ron DeSantis for her upcoming race in part because she voted against masking students during the pandemic.
And, as it turns out, that endorsement was enough to score a potential new voter.
“She said, because I’ve been endorsed by him, ‘you have my vote,’” Rosario said in an interview. “She didn’t even ask my stance on issues or why I’m running.”
Rosario is one of 29 conservative school board candidates DeSantis endorsed this election cycle, a move that came with $1,000 donations and subsequently set off a series of partisan-fueled races across the state that have seen a huge amount of campaign money flowing into them.
By wading into school board races and endorsing local candidates, DeSantis is attempting to reshape the education landscape in the country’s third most populous state. The move is also leading Florida Republicans to send cash and campaign help on the eve of the primaries, in many cases targeting incumbents who have opposed some of the GOP’s policies.
Some candidates have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from individual donors. Political committees tied to Florida Republicans and Democrats are also pouring tens of thousands of dollars into these normally sleepy races — eclipsing the amount in the 2018 midterm — underscoring the importance of K-12 education and mobilizing parents ahead of November.
“Parental rights, curriculum transparency and classrooms free of woke ideology are all on the ballot this election, and it starts with school board elections,” DeSantis said last week when announcing a statewide campaign tour ahead of the midterms.
Out of those endorsements, the DeSantis campaign is targeting 15 school board races among several counties that defied him and the GOP last fall by passing local student mask mandates.
DeSantis is also challenging at least 10 incumbents who are running for reelection. In most instances, incumbents, regardless of affiliation, are being pushed to raise significantly more cash to defend their seats compared to four years ago, a sign of how endorsements are affecting campaigns this year.
If he succeeds, DeSantis could end up with new allies on school boards who can help him as he continues to rail against teacher unions and Democrats who oppose the handling of Covid-19 mandates and how schools should teach lessons on race and sexual identity.
Campaigns turn ugly
In some cases, the races have been heated.
In Sarasota County, a mobile billboard blasted one local school board candidate — who is endorsed by Democrats — as a “LIAR” and “A BABY KILLER” for previously working at Planned Parenthood. The local Democratic Party called the ad a “new low” while slamming “DeSantis and other GOP operatives,” although the candidate endorsed by the Republican governor also denounced the billboard, which was paid for by Sarasota County-based political action committee ABCD.
In Miami-Dade County, a school board candidate was hit with a cease-and-desist from the DeSantis campaign in July for using a picture of DeSantis in an ad when the governor already endorsed her opponent.
“It’s gotten fairy ugly,” Misty Belford, a Brevard County School Board member endorsed by the Florida Democratic Party, said in an interview.
Belford’s race is one of seven pitting a candidate endorsed by DeSantis against one backed by Democrats, blurring the lines in what are non-partisan contests by law.
The stark differences between the two sides are playing out at the hyper-local level, illustrated by dueling yard signs in Brevard County that demonstrate the heated rhetoric in some of these school board races. Next to signs advocating to reelect Belford, a parent propped up signs saying she “illegally masked your children.”
Belford said she’s “not investing a lot of energy” into the negative campaigning as she continues to knock on doors and canvass ahead of Tuesday’s election.
“The shift in school board races has matched the divisiveness of our people’s perspectives,” Belford said.
Belford in her bid for reelection is facing a political newcomer in Megan Wright, who has the backing of DeSantis.
Wright says she wants to be an advocate for parents on the school board and aligns with the Republican governor on key issues conservatives are pushing for in 2022. She’s against gender orientation and sexual identity being brought into the classroom and lessons that “focus on one race as an oppressor and one race as an oppressed,” which the GOP has branded as vestiges of “critical race theory.”
“The school board believes they are the parent to the children, and that’s not their role whatsoever,” Wright said in an interview.
The DeSantis endorsements each came with a $1,000 contribution from his political committee. And on top of that, they also directed conservative state lawmakers where to donate their money.
Some candidates backed by DeSantis are blowing out the competition on fundraising. Yet others are facing tighter margins or even losing their races.
Wright, for example, is leading the incumbent Belford by raising $41,565 compared to $40,120. Four years ago, Belford’s campaign raised $18,709 to defeat an opponent who raised $28,902.
One race in Sarasota County — which leans Republican despite the board supporting masking students in 2021 — has two candidates who have combined to raise more than $237,000. In this high profile clash, Bridget Ziegler, an incumbent endorsed by DeSantis who is married to the vice chair of Florida’s Republican Party, is facing Dawnyelle Singleton, a first time political candidate with Democratic support vying to be Sarasota’s first Black school board member.
With the election days away, Ziegler’s campaign has eclipsed $138,817 in donations, including $11,250 from political committees tied to conservatives.
And Singleton, who has raised $134,648, has been backed by supporters including Rosalie Danbury, a Democratic donor who has sent $200,000 to the party, and Anita Springer, a member of the board of directors for Planned Parenthood in New England, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports.
Ziegler, by comparison, raised nearly $64,000 during her successful reelection campaign in 2018, records show.
In Miami-Dade County, a DeSantis endorsement is sparking a fundraising contest currently surpassing $405,000 between two candidates, records show.
Marta Perez, a 24-year school board member, has raised about $244,000 against an educator backed by DeSantis, Monica Colucci, who has raised nearly $162,000, records show. Colucci has received more than $42,000 in donations from political committees tied to conservatives, including state lawmakers from all over Florida like former state House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) and incoming Speaker Paul Renner (R-Palm Coast).
The power of endorsements
Aside from money, the DeSantis endorsements carry weight that isn’t measured in cash.
Wright said that her campaign has gotten more attention from all over the country since the endorsement from DeSantis, even though some of it comes from “keyboard commandos” calling her nasty names on the internet.
“It absolutely helps,” Wright said of scoring an endorsement. “It lets people know this is where my policies are, where I stand.”
Once DeSantis dropped his wave of school board endorsements, Democrats ramped up their efforts to get involved in local races ahead of the primaries.
The Florida Democratic Party endorsed 28 candidates in total and Democrat Congressman Charlie Crist, vying for the party’s nomination, also offered up endorsements.
The Collective PAC — which helps elect Black candidates and previously ran TV ads for Democrat gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum — on Thursday endorsed Singleton, who is battling against Ziegler.
The FEA, which is technically nonpartisan but typically aligns with Democrats, donated $31,500 to 34 candidates since July, a list that includes four people running against DeSantis-backed candidates.
And progressive activist group Florida Rising endorsed a slate of candidates, claiming that the “Florida GOP represents its corporate interests and the career ambitions of the Governor.”
To that end, some Democrats and the candidates they back wonder about the effects of school boards being openly politicized. They claim DeSantis created a “circus” for candidates, and fear the election may ultimately give him more sway on local boards, something state leaders elsewhere could seize on.
“If DeSantis is successful in this, we’re going to start to see this type of rhetoric throughout the nation,” Justin Kennedy, a candidate running for the Volusia County board who is endorsed by Democrats, told reporters Friday. “It started in Virginia in 2020 where the governor was able to get some traction on some of these school issues. My fear is that this politization of schools will spread like wildfire.”
But candidates who DeSantis is supporting see it in a different light. They sought out his endorsement because they believe in the same ideas, which are proving to resonate with voters in Florida and beyond.
“I’m proud of the endorsement,” Rosario said. “I endorse the governor as he has endorsed me.”
Gary Fineout contributed to this report.