So, a bit of housekeeping before we begin the story – these results are from the primary elections in August. The Okaloosa County supervisor of elections releases the results for each election by precinct at least a couple of weeks after the elections so that they can audit their own election without worrying that someone has seen any numbers and therefore draws their own conclusion about what they ‘ought’ to be. This ensures that the votes are audited without any bias. Once the votes have been audited for accuracy, the Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections releases their precinct-level results data – which is where we are drawing this information.
Ok, now that that’s out of the way – we have some interesting results – especially in the school board races and the Democratic Party race to run for Governor.
A total of 41,484 voters (29%) of registered voters in Okaloosa County voted in the August ’22 primary. while there was no consensus on candidates (even in a heavily Republican county in Florida, there never is), the elections did provide desicive winners and losers – no race was within the state-mandated .5% margin that would have required a recount.
OkaloosaSchool Board candidate received the most voted from those who turned out – earning a total of 25,290. Republicans, Democrats and independents were all able to vote in her race, as they were in other school board races and this year’s Republican county commission primary.
Because many of the Republican nominees were incumbents (people already in office), there were not many primary races on the Republican ballot this year. The only ones of note were the US House race and the universal primary for county commission.
On the Democratic ballot – many more interesting twists and turns took place – including a local upset, which we’ll get to in a minute.
For most of the primary races, Florida State Law closes the primary to all but registered members of the party in question. This means if you are a Republican, you can only vote in Republican or Universal primaries. If you’re a Democrat, it means the same thing, but for Democratic and Universal primaries. Finally, if you are not registered with a party or are a third party member, you can vote in universal primaries. No third parties held a primary in Okaloosa County this midterm.
Rarely are school board races the most contentious ones on the ballot – but anyone paying attention in local politics during the summer could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. There was plenty of name-calling, mud-slinging and other charged rhetoric in the races for school board seats 1,3 and 5.
Despite the charged atmosphere in the race – and the negativity therein – two of the three candidates won with significant margins, about two votes to one. “Campaigns that are losing or in tight races are more likely to go negative to change the dynamics of the race. Because negative campaigning has risks of alienating voters, candidates who are heavy favorites are risk averse and generally don’t use negativity,” said UWF Political Science Professor Hans Harrell, “That’s why it may seem at times that negative campaigning doesn’t win. However, it’s not because negative campaigning is a losing strategy, but rather that losing campaigns are just more likely to use it. Additionally, negative advertising isn’t necessarily bad for the democratic process, as it gives voters more information about the choices they’re presented with.”
Current candidate for Okaloosa County School Board district two, Parker Destin told Mid Bay News that the results in the Mid-Bay area speak to the type of voter that lives in Niceville. “I had the opportunity of knocking on over 2,000 doors of super voters (in Okaloosa County),” Destin remembers, “And when I listened to them, I discovered that there is a pragmatic self-reliance to Niceville voters. I think that is why their students perform at the highest standard of academics. I think it’s why education ends up being in the top three concerns when you’re out there door-knocking, but the biggest issue I always here from them is how much Niceville voters, regardless of whether they are Republican, Democrat or independent, is how much they want the schools to stop being a flashpoint for our anger-filled, sensational current political discourse. They are educated on the issues as a group. They are tired of the drivel dominating our conversations we all have surrounding education. And, they know that none of it seems to be practically focused on helping our kids reviece an education. They are tired of the distraction, there is too much at stake.”
Overall, precincts 33 (which include Rocky Bayou Estates, Swift Creek, Rockywood and Deer Moss Creek) Bluewater Bay and southern Niceville turned out by a wide margin for the incumbents to give wider margins to all three incumbents on their way to victory.
Substitute teacher Jerry Buckman challenged incumbent and former principal Lamar White in a race that was decided by about four percentage points at the end of the day. Voters in Niceville and Valparaiso helped swing the vote to White – giving the incumbent a margin of 1,200 votes toward his reelection. The margin of victory was a total of 1,600 votes – meaning White’s performance in Niceville, Valparaiso and Bluewater Bay was most of his margin.
White saw his greatest margin of victory come in precicnt 33, which includes the neighborhoods of Deer Moss Creek, Rockywood, Swift Creek and Rocky Bayou Country Club Estates. White also had a strong showing in the Bluewater Bay neighborhoods and southern Niceville neighborhoods. White was the former principal of Bluewater Bay Elementary and Ruckel Middle Schools.
Candidate Destin noted he believes the decisive moment in the closer race – the one between challenger Jerry Buckman and incumbent Lamar White. “I think the reason he didn’t win is that he was associated with all of the negative campaigning and some of the stuff you saw from the Vote Yes for Okaloosa Schools and some of the shadow negative campaigning that had infected the race.”
The district three contest between incumbent Linda Evanchyk, a former Choctaw High School teacher, and Darrell Barnhill a former Walton County School Board member, was much more decisive in its result. Voters chose Evanchyk to return to her seat by a margin of 3:2 overall. Evanchyk slightly outperformed Mid Bay residents by a margin of two percentage points
Evanchyk also had a strong turnout from the eastern portion of Niceville – which gave her two of every three votes in that area. Evanchyk raced up more than 2,300 more votes than Barnhill in the Mid Bay area that includes Valparaiso, Niceville and the Bluewater Bay areas – as well as Eglin Air Force Base.
The most lopsided victory in the school board races went to Dr. Diane Kelley – a Valparaiso resident and former principal of the Laurel Hill School. Kelley cruised to victory in a campaign that saw the most hubbub in the press. Accusations that Dr. Kelley released private records to a media outlet (not us, promise) and that Marion’s daughter was shown sexually explicit material in her classroom.
Kelley polled slightly better in the Mid Bay Area – earned 66.5% of the vote totals, compared to about 65.5% countywide. Her largest margin of victory took place in the eastern portion of Niceville, where she took about 70% of the vote.
On the Republican ballot for the District 1 race, incumbent Matt Gaetz swept to a rather commanding victory over two challengers, Mark Lombardo and Greg Merk. Gaetz did not perform as well in the Niceville and Valparaiso areas as he did in the rest of the district, ceding five points to his challengers in our area. Still, he reaped almost two out of every three votes in our area for the primary. Mark Lombardo saw more of an increase in his vote share, gaining three percentage points to Greg Merk’s .88%. A total of 7,260 Republicans cast their votes in the election from the area.
The State Senate Race (District 2) was a blowout for Jay Trumbull. Now Senator-elect Trumbull got more than ¾ of the total vote throughout the district – and neared that total in Okaloosa County. The Bay County Businessman who will replace Senator George Gainer did not do as well in the Mid Bay area. Trumbull ceded about six points to challenger Regina Piazza in our area but was able to stay about 70% of the ballots cast in the Niceville area. A total of 7,062 registered Republicans voted in this race.
Ostensibly, this was a universal primary as the result of the election determined the winner. Per Florida law, when all of the candidates in a race are of the same party, the primary determines the winner of the general election. All three candidates for the Okaloosa County Commission seat were Republicans, so the primary determined the winner.
Two-term incumbent Carolyn Ketchel won her re-election bid against two challengers, Fort Walton Beach Businessman Matt Turpin and Fort Walton Beach Entrepreneur CareySue Beasley. While she didn’t get the majority of votes, she received a plurality; Florida law says whoever gets the most votes wins. Ketchel ended election night with a little over 48% of the votes in the race. Ketchel outperformed Turpin and Beasley in the Mid Bay Area as well – getting a majority (52.42%) of the ballots cast in between Eglin Air Force Base’s west gate and the Spence Parkway/SR 20 overpass. Ketchel will serve another four years on the commission.
Okaloosa County was the only county in Florida this election cycle to see a net gain in registered voters for the Florida Democratic Party. While the net gain was small, about 730 votes to the blue, it did show some very interesting results in the party’s primaries over the summer. While he wasn’t sure as to the root causes of the registration results (you would need many a survey to be certain), UWF Political Science Professor Hans Hassell says that one reason that Okaloosa looked different than the other 66 counties in Florida could be a demographic shift. “It’s probably a result of the trends of who is moving into the county and less about the Democratic Party (of Okaloosa County)’s implicit claim about outworking Republicans,” though Hassell noted he is more than likely not the best source.
Ron DeSantis earned his position as the candidate of the Republicans for governor as the incumbent (I mean, another Republican could have challenged him, in theory, but have you seen his polling numbers?), which means all of the action in the governor’s primary was on the Democrats’ side of the house this election cycle.
This is where it gets interesting. Charlie Crist, the frontrunner for the nomination back in August (and lamb-to-the-slaughter in November) won the Democrats’ primary by a convincing 59.8%. Not so in Okaloosa County and especially not so in the Mid Bay Area. In Okaloosa County as a whole, Charlie Crist won a plurality of the votes, about 49%. That was good enough for a first-place finish in the county.
The Democratic Senate Primary (to determine who’d face incumbent senator Marco Rubio in November) went for Val Demmings – the eventual nominee. Demmigs had a commanding victory in Okaloosa County. The former Orlando Police Chief garnered 75% of the vote in Okaloosa County – but it was still about 10 points lower than her average around the state of Florida.
Finally, the Democrats of Okaloosa County were able to vote on their preference for a candidate to represent them in the general election contest for Congress.
This race had a decent amount of star power for a northwest Florida Democratic party race and also had plenty of controversy.
Whistleblower Rebekah Jones, who claims she was fired from her position at the Florida Department of Health, battled Walton County resident Peggy Schriever for the nomination.
Jones would win the primary with 63% of the overall vote – and did about the same in Okaloosa County as she did throughout the district.
But her initial win in the primary did not mean the end of the competition. Her opponent, Peggy Schiller, challenged Jones’ ability to stand in the election. Schiller claimed Jones did not meet the residency requirements or political party requirements to run for the house seat. A judge eventually dismissed the challenge to Jones’ candidacy, and her victory stood.
Jones’ legal troubles aren’t over, though. Jones faces a state investigation stemming from her whistleblower activities during the COVID pandemic.
As you might imagine – we are just a couple of weeks away from the full results from the November elections coming out. When the Supervisor does release them, we will put out a map of the district, which precincts voted which way in the election – and hopefully do it for the entire county in order to give you a little more holistic view of the results of the election!
If you’re a big fan of looking at the data and seeing the insights – I hope you’ll look forward to it as much as I am!
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