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Family matters: Excitement builds for western Panhandle Senate primary

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Florida’s western Panhandle has not been exactly known as a hotbed of electoral campaigns during recent election cycles.

The region stretching from Pensacola to Panama City is steadfastly Republican in registration and in electoral dominance. GOP primaries decide most fights in the region, and incumbency has ensured few contentious primaries outside of local offices.

The region is made up of Congressional District 1, part of Congressional District 2, Senate District 1 and Senate District 2. Several State House districts dot the landscape, though few are electorally competitive.

Western Panhandle

The precinct registration figures highlight a key East-West political divide. Outside of Leon County, the Panhandle votes solidly Republican. However, once you get to the counties around Bay, Democratic registration dominates.

The counties on the eastern edge of the Panhandle (which extend beyond the image above) are heavily Democratic in registration as well. However, the white Democrats outside Leon are decidedly more conservative and tend to vote Republican.

Due to their Democratic registration, these voters are excluded from voting in Republican primaries, although they are likely to support the Republican candidate in the General Election. The region has been quiet for cycles. However, term limits and a game of musical chairs could suddenly make the GOP primaries of the Western Panhandle some of the most contentious and exciting of the 2016 cycle.

Since 2001, the westernmost counties in the Panhandle have been represented by U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller in Congressional District 1. Miller gained his seat by handily winning a primary and has not faced a serious challenge throughout his time in Congress. Most of the Dixiecrat (i.e. conservative Democrats likely to vote Republican) precincts are represented by Congressional District 2, now held by Democrat Gwen Graham. State Sen. Greg Evers won his 2010 Senate primary for Senate District 2, representing the west end of the Panhandle and its decidedly Republican voters, and has held the district easily since. Meanwhile, state Sen. Don Gaetz holds Senate District 1, facing little opposition.

The western half of Gaetz’s district: Okaloosa, Walton, and Bay; are heavily Republican in registration, while Holmes, Washington, and Jackson are Dixiecrat.

Congressional District 1

Congressional District 1 hasn’t seen a real race since the special election to replace U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough in 2001. Jeff Miller easily won the seat with over 54 percent in a six-way race. Since then, the congressman has seen little opposition in the safe-red seat.

However, Marco Rubio’s announcement that he would run for president, leaving the U.S. Senate seat open in 2016, has caused Miller to consider a run for Senate, giving up his congressional seat. This is likely to spark a battle between the two state senators of the region, Don Gaetz and Greg Evers, both of whom have expressed interest in the seat. Neither has much of an incentive to back down.

Gaetz is termed out in 2016 and his personal wealth could help him finance the race. Evers won’t be termed out until 2018, but he does not have to resign to run for a federal office. Evers also represents more GOP voters than Gaetz, which could help against Gaetz’s superior name-recognition from his time as Senate president.

However, the story of who represents more GOP voters gets more complicated when you look at the different offices both have held in their lifetime and the effects of the 2012 redistricting. The map below shows the precincts of Congressional District 1 color-coded by the number of registered Republicans in each.

The border of the current Senate Districts is shown. Blue represents Evers’ Senate District 2 and green represents Gaetz’s Senate District 1.

Congressional 1 Preview (Large)

Based on the registration figures from last year’s pre-election book closing, Evers currently represents 80,000 more Republicans than Gaetz. This provides a substantial initial advantage for Evers, who would likely be outspent by the better-known Gaetz. However, things are more complicated than the current boundaries.

Evers and Gaetz were both elected to the Senate when the old Senate map was in effect. Gaetz’s original district, then numbered the 4th, hugged the coastline stretching from Pensacola to Panama City.

Meanwhile, Evers’ district represented the rural northern parts of the counties above Gaetz’s area. Redistricting gave us the current boundaries. The two smaller maps show the areas Gaetz and Evers have represented either in the current or old districts. Blue represents the areas they gained in the 2012 redistricting, red is areas they lost, and purple is areas they continued to hold post-redistricting.

In addition, what’s shown is the boundary of the old House District Evers represented until he got elected to the Senate in 2010. Gaetz was the elected Okaloosa County school superintendent until his Senate Election in 2006. While Evers had a nominal primary challenge for the Senate in 2010 — which he beat back with over 70 percent of the vote — Gaetz has never had a primary for his Senate seat.

However, Gaetz has always used his office to communicate with voters and used an NPA challenge in 2012 to raise and spend $700,000. Gaetz’s high profile makes up for his lack of appearances on primary ballots. Where Gaetz has a disadvantage is that he does not represent big pockets of GOP voters outside of Okaloosa. A good chunk of his Senate district is outside the Congressional District and Holmes County’s Dixiecrats can’t vote in a GOP primary.

Gaetz will have to go into Evers’ region to get more GOP voters to his side. On paper, Evers would be the favorite because he already represents so many of the primary voters. However, Gaetz’s money, name recognition, and campaign style still make him a strong bet for Congress.

Senate 1: Family Legacy

Regardless of what Don Gaetz does regarding Congress, his seat will be open in 2016. For over 2 years, state Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Senator’s son, has been running to replace his dad. Gaetz was originally scheduled to face off against Bay County state Rep. Jimmy Patronis.

However, Patronis accepted an appointment to the Public Service Commission. Gaetz has already raised over $500,000 for the seat and appeared to have the election locked up. That was until recently it became known that Bay County Commissioner George Gainer has interest in running for the seat.

For any challenge to Gaetz, based out of Okaloosa, the optimal challenger would be from Bay County, which has the second largest number of GOP voters in the Senate district. Gaetz is a major player in Okaloosa politics, working to get local allies elected to local office, in many cases successfully.

The part of Okaloosa in Senate District 1 has 38 prcent of the registered Republicans for the seat. Bay has 35 percent. The map below shows the GOP voters by precincts, as well as the county-share for the district.

Senate District 1 Preview (Large)

Gaetz’s current House District 4 covers all of the part of Okaloosa in the Senate seat, while Gainer only represents one fifth of Bay.

For Gainer, his goal would be to consolidate support in Bay and get support in Walton County, the next largest county in the district. Jackson, Holmes, and Washington make up very small shares of the vote for this primary since many of their voters are Dixiecrats. Gainer has an obvious disadvantage; he represents only a handful of voters and will be lagging in fundraising.

However, there is one major ally that could help Gainer’s chances: state Sen. Jack Latvala, who has his eyes on being Senate president for the 2017-2018 legislative sessions.

However, Latvala is in the midst of a leadership battle with state Sen. Joe Negron, who appears to have just a hair more support than Latvala. Matt Gaetz is widely believed to be pledged to vote for Negron when the leadership election happens after the 2016 elections. Latvala needs more allies to win Senate primaries in 2016 to shift the current count and Gainer’s newfound interest in running for the Senate would seem to have Latvala’s fingerprints all over it.

It also appears Latvala has nothing but contempt for the younger Gaetz, who stirred controversy and drew the ire of Latvala with racially charged attacks on fellow state Sens. Dwight Bullard and Arthenia Joyner. Latvala has also chided Gaetz online for how Gaetz questions his dad’s conservatism.

Latvala’s dislike for Gaetz and desire for the Senate presidency could result in the senator hosting fundraisers for Gainer and pouring money from his political committee into the district. The race could get interesting very fast, forcing Gaetz to fight to advance to the state Senate.


If everyone makes the moves they are posturing for right now, Florida’s western Panhandle could see a very exciting primary season. Under one potential scenario, the entire western Panhandle could soon be represented by a member of the Gaetz family.

Gaetz Belt (Large)The voters in the southern half of Okaloosa, all of Walton, and western Holmes, representing 87,000 GOP voters, could see father and son on their ballots. It will be interesting to see how similar father and son would do in this area, and if voters would properly differentiate the two in their campaigns for Congress and Senate.

The residents of this region could be represented by father and son, or neither, depending on the outcomes of the primaries.

Time will tell if we get the contentious primaries that may indeed develop. If they do, the western Panhandle better brace for the flurry of TV ads and mail that will consume them for the summer months of 2016.

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