ST. PETERSBURG — With the sun-drenched downtown waterfront as a backdrop, Mayor Rick Kriseman stood at a podium at Demens Landing Park and announced his backing of Judithanne Scourfield-McLauchlan in her bid for the District 22 seat in the Florida Senate.
“This is a step in the right direction not just for St. Petersburg but for the whole region,” Kriseman said. “We need her advocating for our working families across her district.”
Kriseman’s endorsement of a fellow Democrat as she gears up to campaign against incumbent Republican Jeff Brandes isn’t exactly a surprise as he has supported other Democratic candidates. Yet the decision to hold a media event marking the endorsement, with a dozen or so campaign volunteers waving signs, may reveal how Democrats view this race.
“This is really a competitive seat,” McLauchlan said. “It’s a 50-50 district, so every vote will make a difference.”
Republican control of the legislature has given the party control of how the voting districts are drawn. Thus, many legislative districts favor GOP candidates. The state legislature currently is in a special session to redraw the state’s congressional districts, which a Tallahassee circuit judge has ruled were drawn unfairly.
“We have a terrible system of gerrymandered districts in Florida,” McLauchlan said. “And this, Senate District 22, is a competitive swing district. And voters have a real choice in this election.”
District 22 has a funky shape. It hugs the Pinellas beaches from Belleair south to Tierra Verde. It encompasses everything in Pinellas below Largo, except for South St. Petersburg, which is part of Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner’s district. District 22 moves to the Pinellas bayfront and jumps inland to South Tampa and most of that city’s downtown.
While Democrats see potential success in the district, there are a few stumbling blocks.
McLauchlan, a political science professor who has worked at the White House, has honed the mechanics of campaigning through her work on multiple campaigns. But she faces a well-funded, well-respected incumbent in Brandes.
Brandes was elected to the state House in 2010 and the state Senate in 2012. He has been an outspoken critic of red light cameras and has advocated higher speed limits, Uber and Google Cars. He has raised more than twice as much money, $245,312, as McLauchlan at $105,966.
University of South Florida political science professor emeritus Darryl Paulson said it is Brandes’ race to lose. “He’s got the advantage of name recognition over her,” he said.
Plus, he said, Democrats tend to shun the polls in non-presidential election years. “She may be a very good candidate — and I think she is a very respectable candidate — but she may be hurt by the timing issue,” he said.
McLauchlan counters that a robust ballot — including a gubernatorial race that’s getting a lot of attention and a medical marijuana initiative — could bring out a lot of Democrats.
Yet, without the money or the name recognition, her campaign is appealing to voters through media events and direct voter engagement on the issues.
“There’s a lot going on this year, so I’m hoping we can galvanize voters to pay attention,” she said.