BLOUNTSTOWN, Fla. — A woman wearing a pink “Trump 2024” cap was fervently telling Rep. Al Lawson on Saturday why she won’t be voting for him — or any other Democrat.
“Our country is going down the tubes and the Democrats are not doing anything to help,” Margaret Belgard told the three-term Democratic congressman from nearby Tallahassee.
Lawson, a 6-foot-7 former athlete trying to save his job after Gov. Ron DeSantis drew him out of his district, had been making the rounds among the food vendors and tents at the annual Goat Day festival in this small town near the Apalachicola River when he encountered Belgard.
“I’m Al Lawson. I need your help,” he’d been repeating all day. But Belgard wasn’t offering any as she criticized Democrats and President Joe Biden. Lawson countered that he steered millions of federal dollars to the area and made a vow: “I won’t give up on you for nothing.”
“If you became a Republican, I’d vote for you all day long,” retorted Belgard.
That exchange summed up Lawson’s fundamental problem: He’s a lifelong Democrat whose congressional district — a near- majority Black district — was dismantled by DeSantis this spring. The governor’s redistricting plan not only eliminated Lawson’s seat but also put the entire state capital, and Lawson’s Tallahassee home, in the district now held by GOP Rep. Neal Dunn, who is from Panama City. It was a move designed to give Florida Republicans a 20-8 seat advantage over Democrats.
Several voting and civil rights groups have filed legal challenges against DeSantis’ redistricting efforts in state and federal court but neither are expected to be resolved any time soon.
Instead of retreating, or ending his political career, the 74-year-old Lawson blasted DeSantis’ involvement in redistricting and announced he would challenge Dunn even though the revamped district went for former President Donald Trump over Biden by 11 points in 2020.
“I still had it in my blood,” explains Lawson, who noted that he represented many of the rural counties in the newly-formed congressional district during his 10-year career in the state Senate.
Lawson, whose Republican colleagues in the Florida Legislature would joke with him about his never-ending quests to get money for a rural fire department, has staked part of his campaign on a throwback appeal that stressed how much state and federal money he’s secured for residents over the years.
Despite pleas from his fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, national Democrats have provided little funding for his campaign. He said he told his colleagues in D.C. that “I want to know if I really am a member of the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.] You all haven’t given me anything.”
“You guys could give me $25,000 and I’d be OK,” Lawson said in an interview.
In this rare member-on-member matchup, Dunn has outraised Lawson more than two-to-one. Campaign filings show that Dunn has pulled in nearly $1.59 million, compared to the nearly $600,000 Lawson has collected.
North Florida just a few years ago was home to conservative Democratic voters who would split their tickets between Republicans for president and hometown Democrats. But Trump’s ascent led to a “major realignment” of the region, said Matt Isbell, a Democratic analyst and data consultant. Calhoun County, the home of Blountstown where Lawson was campaigning, had twice as many Democrats as Republicans in 2016. Not anymore. Calhoun and several other counties in the region now have more GOP voters.
“The window is rapidly closing,” Isbell said. “When I start tracking local party affiliation — this whole region — was blue. Now there’s barely any of that left. … We’re rapidly hitting the point in north Florida where the only Democratic precincts outside of Tallahassee are African American.”
Lawson’s 5th Congressional District linked Black communities across north Florida from west of Tallahassee to urban Jacksonville more than 160 miles east. It also included a large swath of Tallahassee and would have remained a Democratic-friendly seat in some of the initial maps drawn by legislators. But that all changed when DeSantis pushed the GOP-led Legislature to blow it up.
It’s against this backdrop that Dunn and Lawson — who have known each other for decades — are now competing for the same seat, the only incumbent-on-incumbent congressional race in Florida. The contest has taken a rougher, partisan edge as Election Day draws closer, with both men airing ads slicing into their opponent.
Dunn, who showed up at the Goat Day festival about a half hour after Lawson had left, pointed out that he had nothing to do with the DeSantis map that placed him in competition with Lawson.
“I’m not running saying he’s a bad guy, I’m running saying that I’m a better fit for the district,” Dunn, who was first elected in 2016, said in an interview.
Both men displayed those differences during a Tuesday lunchtime debate in Tallahassee before a local political club. Dunn and Lawson disagreed over abortion rights, guns, Biden’s presidency and the economy. Dunn called Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan “patently unconstitutional” while Lawson said it was “the right thing to do” to help students after Congress bailed out Wall Street.
Dunn, using a familiar line for Republicans across the country, said that Lawson “votes with this president 100 percent of the time” while he represented “steadfast conservative values.”
“I don’t worry about [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi or Biden. What I worry about is bringing resources down so that our community can survive,” Lawson retorted.
Dunn’s line about Lawson’s voting record also shows up in one of the Republican’s television ads linking Lawson to Biden and Pelosi. Lawson, meanwhile, has hit Dunn for voting against a sweeping expansion of veterans health care that GOP Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott voted yes on.
Dunn, a surgeon who spent 11 years in the U.S. Army and reached the rank of major, bristled over the criticism and defended his no vote during the debate by calling the bill “reckless” and too expensive.
“There’s no way I would vote against veterans,” said Dunn, who was wearing a black U.S. Army baseball cap as he campaigned in Blountstown.
Nancy Texeira, a longtime Lawson adviser who is working for a super PAC helping him, says bluntly that “we don’t expect any crossover” voters to back Lawson. Instead the group plans to target independents, students in Tallahassee and Black voters in Leon and Gadsden counties. Part of their message: DeSantis took away their voices by pushing through the redistricting plan that swept away Lawson’s current district.
“It was done so cruelly and it hasn’t gotten enough press,” Texeira said.
But Texeira acknowledged that the same partisanship influencing voters across the country is now in place in north Florida.
“There was a time when party didn’t matter,” Texeira said. “Party is like a religion now.”
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