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Big Risk: Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott double down on mandates despite unpredictability of COVID crisis

Will short-term gain for leading charge against COVID-19 restrictions backfire if cases surge in schools?

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CFP Red Blue Circle(CFP) — A number of Southern Republican political leaders — most notably, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott — have decided to take a huge gamble; namely, to lead the charge against new COVID-19 restrictions, despite the Delta variant ripping across their states, filling up hospitals and stretching front-line workers to their breaking point.

It’s an experiment — literally — that is particularly risky given that one of the populations being experimented are hundreds of thousands of school children, whose parents cannot get them COVID-19 vaccinations even if they want to.

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Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas

If DeSantis and Abbott are right — that all of the doomsaying and caterwauling by public health officials is an overblown overreaction — their gamble is likely to delight their base and pay dividends when they come up for re-election next year.

But if they are wrong — if busloads of children start getting sick or dying — these current prohibitive favorites could find themselves in electoral trouble. Which begs the question, is it worth the risk?

To see the possible pitfalls of this strategy, one need only look at the school district in Marion, Arkansas, where, after just the first week of classes in August, 900 students and staff were in quarantine.

That was enough to convince Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson that his decision back in April to sign into law a ban on mask mandates, pushed through by Republican lawmakers, was a mistake. It was not, however, enough to convince those lawmakers to reverse the mask ban when Hutchinson summoned them back to Little Rock for a special session to do so.

To be clear, neither DeSantis and Abbott are anti-vaxxers. On the other hand, they are not merely taking a personal political stand against mask and vaccine mandates — they are aggressively pushing back against local officials and even private businesses who want to put these measures into place themselves.

Two hallmarks of traditional conservatism are giving power to local officials to make decisions they think best for their communities (particularly school boards) and giving businesses free hand to run their enterprises as they see fit. Both have gone out the window amid a conservative backlash to mask and vaccine mandates, a wave which DeSantis and Abbott seem eager to ride.

DeSantis has gone so far as to oppose hospitals requiring staff on the front lines of the pandemic to get vaccinations, and he has gone to court to block cruise lines from requiring vaccinations for passengers, which the cruise companies desperately want.

Given the devastating outbreaks of COVID-19 among cruise ship passengers during the early days of the pandemic, cruise companies want to err on the side of caution; DeSantis is coming down instead on the side of an expansive sense of personal liberty, even at the expense of public health.

Both Abbott and DeSantis are responding to a part of their base that is skeptical of vaccines and vehemently opposed to mask mandates and lockdowns. Some of these people even argue that masks are harmful for children, an assertion not supported by any reputable medical research.

The irony, of course, if that if these people had gotten vaccinated, the COVID-19 might now be mostly over, eliminating the possibility of mandates or lockdowns.

It makes sense, with perverted logic, for people who believe COVID is a hoax to support dispensing with restrictions even though most people are still unvaccinated. But if the last 18 months have taught Abbott and DeSantis anything, it is surely that COVID isn’t a hoax.

Abbott is facing primary challengers who already complain that he’s taken too many COVID precautions, perhaps explaining why he’s so resistant to more. DeSantis is not yet being primaried on this issue, so taking a hard line here is perhaps a way to stopping a challenge from getting off the ground — not to mention helping him with a possible 2024 presidential run.

Still, a recent Florida polled showed DeSantis’s job approval under water, in a state where the last three governor’s races were decided by 1 point or less. Texas is more Republican but not out of reach for Democrats if the public comes to believe people have died needlessly under Abbott’s stewardship.

Two other facts call into question the wisdom of DeSantis and Abbott’s big risk.

First, the fallout from the COVID pandemic likely cost Donald Trump re-election, something even the former president has been willing to concede. So, perhaps this is a lesson to which more attention needs to be paid.

And second, COVID has proven to not only be tremendously deadly but highly unpredictable. So, climbing out on a political limb and hoping that the worst public health crisis in a century will turn out all right in the end would seem a dubious long-term strategy, even if the base lustily cheers in the short term.

However, for better or worse, both DeSantis and Abbott have embraced this risk. So in that bed they will now have to lie.

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Murder plot? Secret recording roils Florida U.S. House race

District 13 candidate William Braddock reportedly brags about having access to a “hit squad” to make rival Anna Paulina Luna “disappear”

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

FloridaST. PETERSBURG (CFP) — Florida Republican congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna’s claim that her political rivals were plotting to murder her raised skeptical eyebrows when she made the charge in a court application asking for stalking protection.

“I really think that she’s exhibiting behavior that I would say is concerning,” said one. “This woman is off her rocker,” said another.

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Florida GOP congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna

But then, Politico obtained a recording in which a man identified as her political rival, William Braddock, is heard bragging that he has access to a “hit squad” of “Ukrainians and Russians” prepared to make Luna “disappear” if she closes in on the Republican nomination in the 13th U.S. House District in Pinellas County.

“I really don’t want to have to end anybody’s life for the good of the people of the United States of America,” says the man identified as Braddock in the secretly recorded telephone conversation. “That will break my heart. But if it needs to be done, it needs to be done.”

“Luna is a f—ing speed bump in the road,” the man identified as Braddock says. “She’s a dead squirrel you run over every day when you leave the neighborhood.”

When contacted by Politico, Braddock declined to say whether the voice on the recording, made June 9 by conservative activist Erin Olszewski, is him or whether he threatened to kill Luna. But he said, “This is a dirty political tactic that has caused a lot of people a lot of stress and is completely unnecessary.”

Florida’s 13th District seat, which Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is vacating to run for governor, is perhaps the GOP’s best pick-up opportunity next year in the Sunshine State. It is perhaps not helpful, then, that the two Republican candidates currently in the race — Luna and Braddock — are now involved in a police investigation over a possible murder plot.

A hearing has been scheduled for June 22 on whether to extend the injunction Luna got that bars Braddock from both her speaking events and Conservative Grounds, a coffee shop in Largo frequented by Pinellas conservatives.

After losing to Crist in November in the swing district, Luna, 32, a businesswoman and Air Force veteran, decided to make another run, encouraged by the prospect that Florida’s GOP-led legislature may make the district more Republican during redistricting.

Braddock, 37, a St. Petersburg attorney and former Marine, entered the race last week after Luna’s allegations became public.

Olszewski said that in her phone call with Braddock, he tried to dissuade her from supporting Luna in next year’s GOP primary; she recorded the call and turned it over to St. Petersburg police because she said she was concerned about Braddock’s “unhinged” dislike of Luna.

However, in Florida, secretly recording a phone call without the other person’s knowledge is a felony, and Braddock told Politico that he would seek civil damages and criminal charges against “folks in possession of whatever recording they think they have of myself or someone else.”

In her request for protection, Luna also said that Braddock claimed he was “working together” with two other Pinellas Republicans — Amanda Makki, whom Luna defeated in the 13th District GOP primary in 2020, and Matt Tito, a conservative political commentator who lost a Florida House race last year.

Both Makki and Tito have denied having any role in a plot against Luna (Makki is the person who called Luna’s behavior “concerning”), and Tito has said he’s talked to a lawyer about pursuing a defamation claim.

Tito told the Tampa Bay Times that although he knows Braddock and Makki, he has infrequent contact with both.

“[Luna’s] goal was to embarrass us, it was to get us to keep us out of the race, to intimidate us,” he told the Times.

In the meantime, the four Democratis in the race — State Reps. Ben Diamond and Michele Rayner, Christian Hotchkiss and Eric Lynn continue their campaign, without any mention of political assassination or Russian and Ukrainian hit squads.

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Here he goes again: Charlie Crist leaving Congress to run for Florida governor

Crist makes another run for state’s top office after statewide losses in 2010 and 2014

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (CFP) — He’s run for 10 times for six different offices over the past three decades and has been, at various times, a Republican, an independent and a Democrat. And now Charlie Crist is giving up his relatively safe seat in Congress to once again seek the state’s top office as a Democrat that he once held as a Republican.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Florida, announces run for governor in St. Petersburg (From WPTV via YouTube)

Crist announced Tuesday that he would forgo re-election to his 13th District U.S. House seat in order to challenge Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in 2022.

“This won’t be an easy fight, but nothing in life worth fighting for is easy,” Crist told supporters at a kickoff rally in his hometown of St. Petersburg. “I’m running so you will be in charge again, so you will have a governor who will work for the people with a steady hand and an open heart.”

Crist opened the campaign with a broadside against DeSantis, whom, he said, “doesn’t listen, who doesn’t care and who doesn’t think about you — unless, of course, you write him a campaign check.”

Watch video of Crist’s campaign kickoff rally at end of story

While Crist is the biggest Democratic name to enter the race so far, he may have to battle to get his party’s nomination. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried — the only Democrat now holding statewide office in the Sunshine State — is expected to run, and U.S. Rep. Val Demings from Orlando is also seriously considering the race.

Crist’s decision also has implications for the Democrats’ narrow House majority, as he represents a swing House district in Pinellas County that Republicans held for more than 30 years before he flipped it in 2016.

The Republican he beat in 2020 by 6 points, Anna Paulina Luna, has already announced a 2022 run.

Should he become the Democratic nominee, Crist would face a formidable foe in DeSantis, who has been building a national political profile to possibly seek the White House in 2024.  A Democrat hasn’t won the governorship in Florida since 1994.

Crist’s new political quest is the latest chapter in a complicated political career that has seen him seek six different offices over the last 30 years. His new run for governor will be his 11th campaign overall and seventh statewide.

Crist reached the top in Republican politics in 2006, when he was elected governor as a conservative. But then he  then decided to forgo re-election in 2010 to make what turned out to be an ill-considered run for the U.S. Senate. Poised to lose the Republican primary to now U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Crist bolted the GOP to run unsuccessfully as an independent.

By 2014, he had changed parties again to become a Democrat and narrowly lost the governor’s race to Rick Scott, who now holds the state’s other Senate seat.

Crist, 64, revived his political career in 2016 with his successful run for the House as a Democrat, a seat which he is now giving up after just six years to once again seek higher office.

This will be Crist’s third run for governor. He’s also run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate twice, in 1998 and 2010, and was also elected as state education commissioner and attorney general before winning the governorship.

He has gone 3-and-3 in his previous statewide races.

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New Census figures show 5-seat shift in Southern U.S. House districts

Texas, Florida and North Carolina gain seats; West Virginia loses a seat

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WashingtonWASHINGTON (CFP) — The U.S. Census Bureau released population totals for reapportionment of U.S. House seats Monday that will alter the size of delegations in four Southern states.

Fast-growing Texas will be the biggest winner, gaining two seats to take its delegation to 38 members. Florida will get one new seat to go to 28, and North Carolina will gain one seat to go to 14.

However, West Virginia will lose one of its three seats, which could force Republican incumbents to run against each other in newly configured, larger districts.

West Virginia’s new delegation will be its smallest in history. The Mountaineer State has had at least three members of Congress since it entered the Union in 1863 and had as many as six in the 1950s.

Alabama dodged a bullet, keeping all of its seven seats. Some projections prior to release of the final numbers had shown the Yellowhammer State losing a seat.

Georgia will also not gain a seat for the first time in 40 years.

The new numbers will set off a legislative scramble in all four states, as new lines will have to be drawn.

Republicans will be in total control of redrawing lines in all four states. While North Carolina has a Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, state law doesn’t give him authority to veto reapportionment bills.

However, Texas and North Carolina are covered by the Voting Rights Act, which requires them to preserve electoral opportunities for minority candidates. In addition, a constitutional amendment passed in Florida in 2010 outlaws gerrymandering lines based on political considerations.

Legislators in West Virginia will have to decide which of the state’s three GOP House members — David McKinley, Carol Miller and Alex Mooney — to draw into the same district. As there are no statewide or Senate races in 2022, House members may be left with the option of competing in a primary or bowing out of Congress.

In Texas, due to demographic trends, Republican legislators may have to draw at least one majority Latino district, likely to be Democratic, in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act. But they could try to maximize Republican chances across the rest of the map, including helping out incumbents who survived Democratic challenges in 2018 and 2020.

No matter now the lines are drawn, litigation is likely in Texas, Florida and North Carolina, states where maps drawn after the 2010 Census were subject to lengthy court fights that resulted in court-ordered map redraws in all three states.

While Virginia is not gaining or losing a seat, its lines could also be substantially redrawn by a new independent commission. The maps after 2010 were drawn by Republicans, who have since lost control of the legislature and governorship, and then later redrawn by a federal court after a legal fight.

The Democrat-controlled Virginia legislature implemented an independent redistricting commission earlier this year.

Also, in Georgia, Republicans may redraw the map in metro Atlanta to target two Democratic incumbents — Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux — by combining Democratic areas currently in both of their districts into a single district, which could force one of them out of Congress.

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Florida U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings dies at 84

Democrat’s death narrows party’s House majority, sets off scramble for his South Florida seat

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

FloridaFORT LAUDERDALE (CFP) — Democratic U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida, who launched a barrier-breaking, three-decade career in Congress after being impeached and removed from his post as a federal judge in 1989, died April 6 after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

He was 84.

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U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Florida

In a statement announcing his death, Hastings’s family said he “lived a full life with an indelible fighting spirit dedicated to equal justice. He believed that progress and change can only be achieved through recognizing and respecting the humanity of all mankind.”

Hastings was re-elected in November to his 15th term from the 20th U.S. House District, which includes parts of Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and areas inland toward Lake Okeechobee. He was the longest-serving member of the Sunshine State’s House delegation.

With Hastings’s death, Democrats have just a two-seat majority in the House. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will now call a special election to fill the seat, which could leave it vacant for several months and set off a scramble among local Democrats for a rare open seat.

The heavily Democratic, majority black district will almost certainly stay in Democratic hands.

As a civil rights lawyer in the 1960s, Hastings fought against segregation in South Florida and made headlines in 1970 with an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate at the age of 29, the first black Floridian to seek a Senate seat.

He became a judge in Broward County in 1977 and two years later was named a U.S. District Court judge by President Jimmy Carter.

In 1981, Hastings was accused of soliciting a bribe to show leniency toward two convicted mobsters but was acquitted of all charges in 1983 after his alleged co-conspirator refused to testify.

But although he was acquitted, the House later voted to impeach Hastings in 1988, and the Senate convicted him and removed him from office in 1989, only the sixth federal judge ever tossed from the bench.

In 1992, he made a comeback by winning a House seat in Broward County in a runoff against one of his current colleagues, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, becoming part of a group of the first three black congressmen elected from Florida since Reconstruction. He won re-election 14 times, often by 3-to-1 margins.

In January 2019, he announced he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, but he continued to serve in Congress and ran for re-election in 2020.

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