It’s a seat long held by Republicans known for pushing back against other Republicans.
Abortion, the environment, education reforms – GOP state senators from Sarasota County often resisted the more conservative elements of their party on such issues.
Former state Sen. Bob Johnson once called a GOP proposal to tie teacher pay to certain performance standards an “absolute dog” of a bill. That was 30 years ago.
Last year Sen. Nancy Detert described legislation pushed by Republicans that gave bonuses to teachers based on their high school SAT scores the “worst bill of the year.”
Detert and her immediate predecessor in the seat, former Sen. Lisa Carlton, support abortion rights. Johnson and former Sen. Warren Henderson were known as some of the most outspoken environmental advocates in the Legislature.
But times have changed. Sarasota County has changed. The Republican Party has changed. And some believe this could be the year that a more staunchly conservative candidate wins the seat being vacated by Detert that covers Sarasota County and part of Charlotte County.
With five candidates who span the ideological spectrum, the District 23 Senate primary is being closely watched as a race that will take the temperature of the Sarasota GOP.
Nearly half of Sarasota County’s GOP primary voters – and 55 percent in Charlotte County – went for Donald Trump in Florida’s presidential primary, indicating that the angst and anti-establishment feeling roiling the party nationally has deep roots in the local GOP base.
Trump’s focus on illegal immigration, and the way he has elevated that issue within the party, is having a big impact on the Senate race. The candidates’ records on the issue are one of the main points of contention.
Other hot-button social issues such as guns, abortion and transgender bathroom use have dominated many of the candidate forums hosted by local GOP clubs.
It’s a perplexing turn of events for some longtime GOP leaders in the region.
“I am surprised it’s that prominent,” former Sarasota GOP chairman Tramm Hudson said of the immigration debate. “In Sarasota I don’t know how much the immigration issue affects everyday life.”
Hudson – who is not actively supporting any of the candidates – said he always viewed Sarasota County as a bastion for “what I would call Midwestern Teddy Roosevelt-type Republicans.”
“They’re strong on environmental” and fiscal issues, Hudson added. “Much less so on social issues, such as abortion. Some on the hard right would refer to them as squishy.”
But Hudson concedes that the party has become significantly more conservative in recent years.
Sarasota GOP activist Christian Ziegler believes the conservative wing now dominates the party locally.
“I think it’s a different time, a different population and we have a different ideological base in Sarasota County,” Ziegler said.
The changing make-up of the party has left more moderate candidates, such as former Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, seeming disoriented at times.
Hudson views Patterson as the archetypal Sarasota Republican, someone who can point to a fiscal record of repeatedly cutting the property tax rate and making prudent budget decisions that helped the county weather the Great Recession, but also is known as an ardent environmental advocate who supports abortion rights.
Patterson has been endorsed by the last four Republicans to hold the Senate seat – Detert, Carlton, Katherine Harris and Johnson, who offered his support in writing before he passed away last year.
But at public forums, Patterson often has been on the defensive about her more moderate views.
The question of whether she backs Trump has been particularly vexing. Patterson initially said, “I doubt that I will support anybody in the presidential election” at one forum before backtracking. She also has been hammered in mailers and a television ad for supporting Planned Parenthood.
Meanwhile big money and endorsements from key groups are flowing to two more conservative candidates, state Rep. Greg Steube and former state Rep. Doug Holder.
Recent polls have shown an extremely close race, with Steube, Holder and Patterson all drawing roughly the same level of support. State Rep. Ray Pilon – another moderate who is campaigning under the slogan “less partisanship, more results” – has raised the least of the four major candidates and is lagging behind in the polls. A fifth candidate, Sarasota businessman Rick Levine, is campaigning as an anti-establishment outsider but has raised little money and is not a major factor in the race.
Steube has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and the Florida Right to Life political action committee. He is known as one of the most pro-gun members of the Legislature, having sponsored an array of bills aimed at expanding gun rights in the state.
“He is a very active supporter of Second Amendment rights,” said NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer.
An Iraq War combat veteran, Steube’s military service may give him a leg up in a district that has a lot of veterans. He also styles himself as someone willing to stand up to special interests.
Steube went against the state’s business lobby on the issue of taxpayer funded economic incentives – which he opposes – and pushed against entrenched business interests to help craft brewers and distillers expand in Florida.
But his opponents have seized on the fact that he sponsored legislation sought by his law firm, painting him as a hypocrite engaged in “cronyism.” The bill established a framework for private companies to build public infrastructure, something many law firms are active in. Steube argues the bill gave no special benefit to his firm.
“I am a strong conservative. That’s who I am. That’s what I stand for,” Steube said. “If that’s what the voters want in this district they have that option.”
Steube has competition for the conservative vote from Holder, who also is A-rated by the NRA and has consistently backed anti-abortion bills.
Holder did not focus on issues such as guns or abortion in the Legislature though, instead working closely with business interests. He sponsored a bill with Detert that cut the state’s unemployment benefits and is strong advocate for the economic incentive program backed by Gov. Rick Scott, which Patterson also supports.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce endorsed Holder and has been putting out mailers supporting him and bashing Steube.
Holder also has taken a hard line on immigration and is making it a centerpiece of his campaign.
“Certainly immigration is one of the top issues in this race,” he said. “I think protecting our borders and making sure benefits are not given to illegals is important.”
Banning so-called sanctuary cities is one of the first issues Holder mentions at candidate forums, even though as a lawmaker he voted to give undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses and in-state tuition, two votes Steube has highlighted in mailers.
“The times have changed since some of these bills have gone through the Legislature,” Holder said.
A political action committee that appears to be funded by Holder’s allies has been firing back at Steube over a bill he sponsored – and which Holder also voted for – that allowed non-citizens to become lawyers in Florida under certain circumstances.
Patterson says she supports a ban on sanctuary cities but believes such issues are a distraction in the race. Detert agrees, saying she believes the immigration debate is being driven by polls and not the candidate’s deep-seated beliefs, calling it “disingenuous and insulting to voters with intelligence.”
“I think it’s mostly a federal issue,” Detert said. “And all of these flyers daily talking about immigration are ridiculous. We should be talking about Zika, we should be talking about algae blooms… instead of just hot-button issues that look nice on your brochure.”
Detert has appeared in mailers and a television ad for Patterson.
“I really think that she’s the one most committed to just being just a public servant,” Detert said.
But just as Holder and Steube are splitting the conservative vote, Patterson has competition for the moderate vote from Pilon, who recently began sending out mailers touting himself as a “consensus builder.”
At times it has seemed like Pilon is trying to straddle the conservative and moderate factions. He has been unequivocal in his support for Trump and his opposition to allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of the sex they identify with.
But Pilon’s voting record includes opposition to pro-gun and anti-abortion bills. He also supported expanding the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor in Florida and revising workplace anti-discrimination laws to include gay people.
Pilon’s campaign literature steers clear of contentious issues, instead focusing on “quality of life” concerns such as “clean water, great schools, affordable health care.”
One mailer even invokes Detert. “Just like Nancy Detert, Ray is an independent thinker,” it reads.
Like Patterson, Pilon said he is disappointed that the race has been focused on divisive, highly-partisan issues. He said his votes show “I don’t bend to pressure.”
“I will stick by my principles to the end no matter what,” he added. “You can bend to these special interest ideological groups or you can do what is right for the state and the community.”
The Senate contest is about more than ideology, of course. It’s also about the candidate’s backgrounds, history of public service and community connections. The four major players each have support bases cultivated from past campaigns.
Fundraising also could play a big factor in the final outcome. More than $1.5 million has been raised by the candidates and their affiliated committees and much more money is flowing in from outside groups, making it one of the most expensive legislative contests in Florida.
Holder and Steube have raised the most, while Patterson has stayed competitive, in part, by pumping $100,000 of her own money into her campaign. Whoever emerges from the pack will face the winner of the Democratic primary, either New College professor Frank Alcock or recent University of South Florida graduate Frank Cirillo.
The deep GOP field makes it a difficult primary to handicap. In a five-way contest the winner is likely to need a little more than 30 percent of the vote.
“It’ll be a photo finish,” Detert said.