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Local politicians switch seats in search of a winning election spot


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Former Commissioner Carol Whitmore remembered attending Stan Stephens' election night after-party in 2000, mainly because Stephens’ lost the race. 

He was running for the District 3 seat on the Manatee County Commission. Not only was he the incumbent, he raised over $100,000 in campaign contributions. Stephens was up against Jane Von Hahmann. She owned a retail surf store, raised under $10,000, and had never run for office before.

Whitmore was reminded of the upset when Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge announced on May 31 that he wouldn’t be running for re-election in District 3. Instead, he’s launched a campaign in District 7, which is the at-large seat currently held by Commissioner George Kruse. 

“Developers were very supportive of (Stephens),” Whitmore said. “He lost because the people spoke, and I think that’s why Kevin did what he did because it has happened before (where a sitting commissioner lost even with considerable financial backing).”

Following Van Ostenbridge’s announcement, April Culbreath announced that she would be running for the District 3 seat instead of the one in District 7. In April, District 1 Commissioner James Satcher gave up his District 1 seat to accept the appointment as Supervisor of Elections, thereby putting himself in the upcoming election for that position, while candidate Keith Green reacted by announcing he would be running for District 1 instead of District 7.

In some cases, candidates have spent a lot of money to see where they best fit, or don't fit, when it comes to running for office.

Former Commissioner Misty Servia said polls that cost about $12,000 a pop can evaluate races for them. 

“People with the big money do a lot of polling,” she said. “If it looks like they may have trouble winning, they switch districts.”

Van Ostenbridge said his switching races had nothing to do with his popularity in District 3 and everything to do with Kruse’s liberal voting record as a commissioner.

“I’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of support,” Van Ostenbridge said. “That level of support enables me to challenge Commissioner Kruse on the countywide level and rid Manatee County of the most liberal politician we have.”

Van Ostenbridge has raised nearly $215,000 in support, and $170,000 of those contributions, toward the District 3 seat, were reported straight out of the gate in December. He said he’s been contemplating running against Kruse for “a while,” even though it’s “possibly” a bigger risk.

Van Ostenbridge will need to earn about four times more votes than when he won the District 3 seat in 2020 against Matt Bower. With a 79.84% voter turnout, he received 23,213 votes, but only needed 19,884. 

Kruse received 21,184 votes in the 2020 primary against Ed Hunzeker. He won the general election in a 93% landslide against write-in candidate Thomas Whitten Dell. To win the seat, he needed 85,719 votes.

“Their entire base is uninformed voters,” Kruse said. “Guarantee that a disproportionate 80-90% of the people that vote for (Van Ostenbridge, Culbreath and Satcher) had no idea who they were before qualifying. Their entire vote will be based solely on the mail and the TV and everything else they pump out in the next eight to 10 weeks.”

Whitmore lives in District 3. She predicts Van Ostenbridge will spend a lot of money in Lakewood Ranch’s “District 5, where people don’t know him.”


Endless piles of money

OpenSecrets is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that researches and tracks “money in politics and its effect on elections and policy.” The organization isn’t tracking local elections, but in 2022, 93.38% of House races and 82.35% of Senate races were won by the top spending candidates. 

While originally running in District 3, the majority of contributions for Van Ostenbridge came in $1,000 increments from sources outside of District 3, many from addresses in Lakewood Ranch. He’s now required to ask donors if he can put that money toward his new campaign. He sent request letters on June 3 and said on June 6 that so far, no one asked for their money back.

This map shows the five voting districts in Manatee County.
Courtesy image

Kruse said the over $200,000 in Van Ostenbridge’s campaign account will be spent mostly on signs and consulting services, but “endless piles of money” will be spent by political action committees to pay for attack ads against him. 

“That’s not an exaggeration,” Servia said. “It is an unlimited amount of money because of one donor, who has told me personally, ‘I don’t care what it takes. I want all seven commissioners rowing in the same direction, doing what I want them to do.’”

Servia declined to name the donor, but there’s another person responsible for the current commissioners’ success during elections – political strategist Anthony Pedicini. 

Pedicini led every sitting commissioner on the board to victory, except Ray Turner who was appointed after Vanessa Baugh retired early. Turner has since hired Pedicini for his election bid. 

Candidates represented by Pedicini have received significantly more campaign contributions than their competitors. Satcher raised over $70,000 for the District 1 race before being appointed as Supervisor of Elections. No other candidate has raised more than $12,000 in the District 1 race as of June 11. 

Kruse used Pedicini’s services in 2020 to get elected, too. Now, he’s taking his chances on a grassroots campaign. He’s raised just over $40,000 to date and has refused to accept multiple checks from the same LLCs. Most of his campaign contributions have come from individuals in increments under $500.

Kruse said informed voters will favor him. He said the vast majority of voters in District 3 are long-term residents who are familiar with Van Ostenbridge.

“He’s represented them for years, yet people in that district hate him," Kruse said of his opponent. "What does that say to the other four districts?” 

Van Ostenbridge has more campaign money, but Kruse is the incumbent in District 7. It will put the strength of campaign dollars to the test against being an incumbent. Open Secrets reports that for the past 10 years, incumbents have won over 80% of Senate seats and over 90% of House seats. 


Republican majority

Republicans, in general, have an edge in Manatee County. Out of 270,838 registered voters, 128,415 are registered as Republicans, compared to 69,896 registered Democrats. 

As of now, District 5 voters don’t have a Democratic option for representation. The two Republican candidates vying for the seat are Robert McCann and incumbent Ray Turner.

The rest of the commission seats have at least one Democrat in the race. District 7 has two – Aliyah Hurt and Sari Lindroos-Valimaki. Since it’s an at-large seat, it’s also the only other commission race that Lakewood Ranch residents can cast ballots for.

“Making this move gives everybody in this county an opportunity to replace liberal representation with staunch conservative representation,” Van Ostenbridge said of the District 7 race.

Kruse has opposed some high profile projects. He voted against Carlos Beruff’s East River Ranch project that lies beyond the Future Development Area Boundary. He voted against cutting back wetland buffers and voted against cutting funding to any agency affiliated with Planned Parenthood. 

“George is more of a conservative, fiscally, than any of them up there,” said Whitmore, who is a Republican. “(Saying he’s liberal) is a talking point that his strategist told him to use because that’s what we as Republicans want to hear, but it’s totally not true.”

On May 28, Kruse was the only vote against an increased budget request of $841,340 from the Supervisor of Elections office. Satcher had been appointed to the office one month earlier, and the request only covered the remaining four months of the fiscal year. Kruse also has been fighting to increase impact fees.

“If you want clean water, you’re a liberal. That’s part of the spin,” District 1 Republican candidate Carol Felts said. “I look at George as a fiscally conservative, moderate Republican.” 

 

author

Lesley Dwyer

Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.

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